Firefighter Bill Butler is very grateful to be alive. He and five colleagues from Ladder 6, Engine 9, were in the North Tower helping to rescue a Port Authority worker named Josephine Harris when the building collapsed around them. Miraculously, the part of the stairwell that they were in remained intact and they survived though others above and below them perished.
When the first plane struck the WTC, Butler was at his firehouse on Canal Street in Chinatown with Captain John Jonas and fellow firefighters Mike Meldrum, Tom Falco, Matt Komorowski and Sal D’Agostino. Straightaway, they rushed to the WTC. They arrived just as the second plane entered the South Tower. Up until this point they thought it might be possible that they were dealing with a stunt that had gone wrong. Now they knew the World Trade Center was under attack and the situation was extremely critical — they had to get people out before something else happened.
The men started the climb up Stairwell B of the North Tower towards the fire, carrying their heavy equipment and pacing themselves so that they would not be too exhausted to do anything once they got to the 80th floor. Without knowing what had happened, they heard the thunderous roar of the collapse of the South Tower. Shortly afterwards, Captain Jonas received a radio message telling them of the collapse. Knowing that if one tower could go, both could go, he gave an order that they should start the descent downwards.
At around the 15th floor, they caught up with an exhausted Josephine Harris who had descended from the 73rd floor. Butler and Falco took her arms and helped her down, but she collapsed around the fourth floor. “We knew the South Tower had collapsed though we didn’t know the magnitude of it. I have heard a building being described as collapsed when the dry wall on the ceiling has fallen off. At the same time, we knew we had to get out of that building. We tried to keep moving at a steady pace and move Josephine with us, but she was slowing us down.” As the firefighters continued to urge Harris onwards, they felt a monstrous shudder as the building collapsed around them. Amidst the unbelievable noise and dust, Butler “got to grips with his own mortality” as he and his colleagues were thrown about by the force of the collapse.
Komorowski who had been last in line was hurled down two flights of stairs and ended up in front of the others, while Harris ended up below Butler, holding onto his boot. They ended up extricating themselves from the rubble and dust, cut and bruised but amazingly all alive. The seven of them were spread out in the stairwell between the second and fourth floors. Four other rescue workers were trapped with them, including Rich Picciotta, a Fire Department chief, and three Port Authority officers. They tried transmitting Mayday calls but got no response. They then used one of the Port Authority officer’s cell phone but couldn’t get through to any New Jersey or New York City area codes. Butler then tried his home in upstate New York in area code 845. He got through to his wife who was able to contact rescue workers and tell them of the group’s whereabouts. The eleven spent the next couple of hours settling into long survivor mode — conserving radio and flashlights and only taking hits off their breathing apparatus’ when it was absolutely necessary — waiting for the dust to settle. Butler explains, “We knew there had been a major collapse of the building but didn’t know if it was jet fuel exploding or how serious the collapse was.”
The enormity of the collapse only began to dawn on them as a shaft of light reached them from above where over 100 stories of the building had been. Though they were on the fourth floor, they were approximately 70 feet from ground level (the central atrium of the WTC was three stories high, so that the second floor was effectively at fourth story level). Eventually, the men deployed a rope line attached to the Fire Department’s Rich Picciotta, who edged his way up rubble to levels five and six. At this point, he was able to put his head through the gap and make contact with a firefighter from Ladder 43 who summoned other members of his company to assist. Ladder 43 tried to lead them out the way they had come in but couldn’t as there was too much fire. “We had to head out towards West Street. We were on rubble seven stories in the air. Our fire truck had been about 50 yards away from the stairwell where we entered the building. Now to get out, we had to traverse about two or three hundred feet of debris — we couldn’t see the truck, it was completely covered.”
Butler is well aware of the miraculous nature of their escape. People above and below them perished, and their meeting Josephine Harris contributed to all of them getting out safely — she delayed them so that they were on the fourth floor when the tower collapsed. “It definitely changes you. I feel that God spared us. Since then, I have gone out to schools telling students about the Fire Department — about our teamwork — how we used our skills to save ourselves and how we just kept going until we got out. It’s my way of doing something. It makes me feel good to talk about this because I’m doing it for the 343 guys who didn’t get out. They were doing the same job as we were and didn’t make it. For some reason, we did.”
Butler, who now works with Rescue 1 in Midtown Manhattan, lives with his wife and three children in Middletown, New York. ♦