Mourning a Woman Who Shared a 9/11
By AL BAKER
Published: January 16, 2011
Bill Cunningham/The New York Times
Josephine Harris with Firefighter Bill Butler,
one of her rescuers, in front of a portrait of
at a 2002 reception.
story of her improbable rescue by New York City
firefighters was among the most enduring to emanate
from the horror of Sept. 11, 2001. It was told and
retold: how a weary woman, Josephine Harris, was
coaxed and carried to safety by six men from Ladder
Company 6 in Chinatown who had rushed to the World
Trade Center that morning.
It was a
feat of timing, engineering and plain luck that when
the rush of wind and noise came and the north tower
fell away, the firefighters and Ms. Harris were not
crushed in a sea of concrete, dust and steel as they
were spread along the stairwell between the fourth
and first floors. Rather, the building fell around
them. As Deputy Chief John A. Jonas explained,
unlike the south tower, which leaned and toppled
over, "ours peeled away like a banana." "And we were
the banana," he added. "We were at the bottom."
It was so
happy a story that the only disagreement seemed to
arise over who had saved whom. Had the firefighters,
led by Chief Jonas - he was then a captain -
survived because they paused to help Ms. Harris, a
bookkeeper for the Port Authority of New York and
New Jersey, as they rushed to leave the north tower?
Or had Ms. Harris, whose legs were weakened by
fatigue, been lucky enough to live because of them?
Chief Jonas spoke on Saturday. On Wednesday, members
of the Fire Department - this time, the Emergency
Medical Service - again rushed to help Ms. Harris,
after being summoned to her apartment on Bushwick
Avenue in Brooklyn by a 911 call at 2:20 a.m. Ms.
Harris, 69, was unconscious when they arrived, and
they had to force open the door. "They did CPR, and
worked on her for some time," a Fire Department
official said. But she was pronounced dead,
apparently after a heart attack.
Ms. Harris's death arrived at Ladder 6 by a
telephone call from her sister, Thelma Johnson. "I
kind of had the same feeling as if a relative had
died," Chief Jonas said. "Right away you start
thinking about all the things you'd gone through. It
was a cloak of sadness, and it is still there. With
the 10-year anniversary coming up, it's going to be
a little different without her." "You cannot say
that something that happened to you is a miracle,"
Chief Jonas said. "But we had the courage to do what
we did, and you can say that if she was not there
for us to save her, we probably would not have
made it." "We had a very unique, shared experience
that not many people on this earth can say they've
had," he added. "We survived that terrible day
together, and we felt close to her and tried to
include her in as many things as we could."
shared experience unfolded when Ladder 6 arrived at
the trade center. The firefighters ran into the
lobby of 1 World Trade Center minutes before a plane
hit the south tower. They passed two bodies, entered
Stairway B and began climbing - each man carrying
100 pounds of gear. At one point they reversed
course and headed down. At the 14th or 15th floor
they encountered Ms. Harris. She had been walking
down from the 73rd floor but was exhausted. "We
looked at her, and Tommy Falco looked at me and
said, 'Hey, Cap, what do you want to do with her?' "
Chief Jonas said. "And I said, 'We cannot leave her
behind.' So, we took her with us, though it really
did put us in harm's way. It really was the right
thing to do, to take her, and I am so glad we did
Firefighter Bill Butler had her arm around his
shoulders. They moved as fast as possible, but Ms.
Harris collapsed around the fourth floor "and was
yelling at us to leave her," Chief Jonas said. "We
weren't going to leave her," he said. Ms. Harris
first went to the firehouse, on Canal Street, about
two weeks after Sept. 11, to meet the firefighters.
They gave her a jacket with the words "Guardian
Angel" embroidered on it. In the days that followed,
there were many requests for interviews, to retell
the story of what they had endured.
account was chronicled in the book "102 Minutes: The
Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin
Towers," by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, reporters for
The New York Times. Its narrative of trauma, fate
and redemption was replayed on the fifth anniversary
of the attack, in a History Channel documentary,
"The Miracle of Stairway B." So unique was the story
of Ms. Harris and the six men - Firefighters Matt
Komorowski, Mike Meldrum and Sal D'Agostino as well
as Firefighters Butler and Falco and Captain Jonas -
that Fire Commissioner Salvatore J. Cassano said
last week: "On a day that will always be recalled
for its inconceivable devastation and unimaginable
loss, the story of Josephine and the firefighters of
Ladder 6 was nothing short of miraculous. One
hundred floors of a high-rise building came down on
them, and, huddled together, they managed to
happy when she was around us," Chief Jonas said.
"She would talk to the wives. She was very
interested in what the kids were doing. She was a
very reserved - really a study in dignity - type of
woman." She last appeared with the firefighters in a
show on the Oprah Winfrey Network last week. Ms.
Johnson said that her sister had briefly returned to
work for the Port Authority but found it difficult
because of an injury sustained on Sept. 11. She
stopped working after her job was moved to Newark,
Ms. Johnson added. Without a job, Ms. Harris, a
widow, eked out a living on disability assistance
and became withdrawn, from neighbors and even
relatives. Some neighbors in her building, where she
had lived for decades, did not even know her
apartment was occupied. Another neighbor, however,
said Ms. Harris had attended a tenant meeting last
week and complained of a fever and loss of appetite.
"She never let you know what was going on in her
world," Ms. Johnson said. Like that day when she
asked the firefighters to go on without her, Ms.
Harris seemed to prefer to shoulder her own burdens.
"Do the most you can for yourself, by yourself -
that's how she was," her sister said.
found out about her health problems when I went into
her apartment after she passed away and looked
through her papers," Ms. Johnson said. "I come to
find out that she was in and out of the hospital."
Along with medical documents, Ms. Johnson found
unpaid utility bills and paperwork that showed Ms.
Harris had filed for bankruptcy. Arrangements for
her funeral were incomplete on Sunday, and,
according to the city medical examiner, her body
remained unclaimed at the morgue.
A version of this
article appeared in print on January 17, 2011, on
page A17 of the New York edition.