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Thursday, September 15, 2011

9/11 vet shares stories of day

NASHUA – Jay Jonas is like the winner of some demented math problem.

Tens of thousands of people worked at the World Trade Center before it was attacked 10 years ago. Thousands evacuated the buildings after the planes hit and hundreds of firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers ran in. Almost 3,000 people, including 343 New York City firefighters, died when the towers collapsed on themselves, pancaking into the lower Manhattan bedrock.

Jonas, an FDNY deputy chief, is one of the slim handful of people who was in one of the buildings when they collapsed and lived to tell about it. He told all about it to a small group of students at Rivier College’s Dion Center in Nashua on Tuesday night.

Jonas said what sticks with him most from that day isn’t the hate and the pain and the obscene number of deaths. It’s the acts of valor and selflessness he saw in the B staircase of the north tower – where he was later trapped – and that he heard on emergency radio frequencies.

“I was at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11th, and I witnessed numerous events of heroism and courage that I think should be the hallmark of the day,” he said. “In my mind, the true story of Sept. 11th was the humanity on display that day.”

Jonas was the captain of Ladder Company 6 in 2001. He was dispatched to the World Trade Center from his company’s fire house on Canal Street, walking distance from the towers. He walked into hell.

“Nothing prepared me for this. I looked at this and thought, ‘Oh my God. Where do we start? How many thousands of people need our help right now?’”

The second plane hit the south tower while Jonas was in line to talk to incident commanders in the north tower’s lobby. Any illusion that there had been a horrible accident evaporated.

“The last thing I told them was, ‘They’re trying to kill us, boys. Let’s go,’” he said.

There were 99 elevators, serving various floors, and three staircases in each of the twin towers. Most of the thousands of people pouring down the staircases had never seen them before, instead using two and three elevators to reach their offices each morning.

On Sept. 11, they were brushing shoulders with firefighters encumbered with about 100 pounds of gear on their way up. Some shouted encouragement and thank yous, Jonas said. Others broke into vending machines and handed bottles of water to the rescuers, or dumped the water over their sweaty heads.

“There was a true spirit of altruism,” he said. “People were helping each other out.”

Jonas and his small crew had made it to the 27th floor when the south tower collapsed. He turned his crew around and started back down the stairs, picking up an injured woman, Josephine Harris, around the 20th floor and carrying her along with them.

“Now I’m nervous about our predicament,” Jonas said. “The spooky music was playing. You were just waiting for the monster to pop out.”

It was on the way out that Jonas witnessed some of the bravery he remembers still. He remembers another captain refusing commanders’ instructions to evacuate the building.

“I refuse the order,” the former Marine radioed back. “I’m on the 44th floor. I have too many burned people with me. I’m not leaving.”

Jonas came across other firefighters on his way out, a lieutenant helping a man having chest pains on the 12th floor and a chief’s aide waiting for his partner in a doorway on a floor a little lower. Both refused to leave until they were finished.

Jonas and his firefighters, along with Harris, had made it to the fourth floor when the north tower began to collapse. They could hear as each floor crashed into the one below it. There was shaking, the floor rippled and there was a “tornado-like wind” in the stairway that pelted them with debris.

“So we covered up the best we could and waited for that big beam or big piece of concrete to come get us,” Jonas said. “But then the collapse stops.”

Jonas and his crew were trapped in a small section of the stairway near what was now the top floor of the tower. He sent out a mayday message, and crews outside started trying to pinpoint his location. Four hours later, they were out and walking across a wasteland of slippery, jagged steel toward the relative safety of West Street.

From there, Jonas trudged his way to the ambulances and then back to his station on Canal Street, trailing a cloud of dust, dirt and ash.

“All too often we live through history and don’t realize it. Ten years ago we all lived through history,” Jonas said. “We knew we were under attack and we went to work anyway. There are thousands and thousands of people alive today because firemen ran into those buildings.”

At the end of his presentation, Jonas played a short slideshow of the pictures of all the firefighters who died at the twin towers. He didn’t talk about the nation’s 10-year anniversary activities last weekend, but asked the college students, some of whom were 8 years old on 9/11, to not forget.

“I can’t tell people never forget if I won’t talk about it,” Jonas said. “I would love if you honored the day. And if you would, please remember my friends.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached at 594-6415, jcote@nashuatelegraph.com. Also check out Cote (@Telegraph_JoeC) on Twitter.