No Ordinary Day

Rescue at One World Trade Center

On Wednesday the FDNY was not rushing to save thousands but two window washers stuck on a dangling scaffold outside the 68th floor. But the rescue was charged with emotion nonetheless.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Lt. Billy Ryan of the FDNY’s Rescue 1 would have been wearing the same thin black band around his helmet no matter what emergency his unit responded to early Wednesday afternoon.

“9/11/2001,” read the numbers on the band.

And he and his fellow firefighters would have immediately set to work no matter what high-rise building reported two window washers stuck on a scaffold that had suddenly gone from horizontal to nearly vertical on an upper floor.

The firefighters had no time to contemplate the significance of pulling up to One World Trade Center, not far from where Rescue 1 had parked its rig on 9/11.

“We know the location,” Ryan later said. “The rest is business.”

They honored the 11 members of Rescue 1 and the 332 other members of the FDNY who died that day in 2001 by focusing completely on the two living people who needed their help.

“You separate yourself for that task at hand,” Ryan said.

The firefighters gazed up from under the brims of their helmets at the scaffold high up the south side of the 104-story new tower just as firefighters had gazed up at the burning towers on 9/11. They continued into the building, Rescue 1 along with Engine 10, Ladder 10, Ladder 6, and Squad 18, as well as the NYPD and the Port Authority Police.

Some of the rescuers took elevators to the top floor and continued up to the roof via a straight ladder. They lowered a portable radio along with two ropes to double up on the security offered by the safety lines the window washers already wore.

Ryan and Rescue 1 were among those who got off at the 68th floor. They had trained for just such an emergency, and they now set to work on the window with a handheld tool called an angle grinder, the diamond blade cutting into the first of the multiple layers. The elevation was high enough that firefighters near the window were secured with lines in case there was a sudden change in pressure.

“Like on a plane,” Ryan explained.

After maybe an hour, the firefighters had cut through the last layer of a 4- by 8-foot area. They removed it and helped window washers Juan Lizama and Juan Lopez to safety. A Manhattan window washer somehow survived a 47-story fall back in 2007, but such a miracle was not likely to repeat itself. And this was more than 20 stories higher.

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“They were quiet,” Ryan later said. “They really didn’t say much.”

Down below, the cops had closed off the two memorial pools that mark the footprints of the towers that once stood there. Tourists who had been on the way to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum stood instead behind police lines, gazing up at the glinting tower. Many took pictures of the scaffold with cellphone cameras that thankfully postdated the day when the fires on high forced people to jump.

The edges of the two pools are inscribed with the names of those who perished there, and somebody had marked Veterans Day by placing yellow roses on those who had been in the military. Yellow ribbons hung from the branches of the famed Survivor Tree, a Callery Pear that had been only a charred and splintered stump when it was pulled from the smoldering ruins but now stood a full 30 feet.

The names of some fallen firefighters and cops also were inscribed on the sides of the emergency vehicles that stood in the street with their lights flashing. The front of the rig that replaced the rig Rescue 1 lost on 9/11 bore a single word in tribute to its fallen Capt. Terry Hatton.


And that was just the word Hatton would have used to describe the efforts of the rescuers on Wednesday. They were not risking all in a desperate attempt to save thousands; they were just trying to bring two window washers to safety. But they were doing it exactly the way it should be done, as they would do at any other building.

This was still One World Trade Center, and the media had responded accordingly. Ryan stood before the cameras along with the FDNY’s top commanders. Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro had been among those who responded on 9/11, and he had lost some of his closest comrades.

“As you all know, we had a scaffolding incident here at One World Trade Center,” he now said. “The results today—two men are going to go home tonight.”

That is always the result rescuers seek to provide. This particular incident seemed no more remarkable than would the Survivor Tree if you did not know the full story behind it being there.

The job done, Ryan went on to the next job with that thin black band around his helmet, as always.