Thoughts & Views: ‘The Miracle of Stairway B’

Every Sept. 11, The History Channel (for once living up to its name) broadcasts actual history programming — dealing with the events of that day of devastation in 2001.

This year, we viewed a documentary that we had heretofore missed, although it was produced in 2006. Somehow, in all the years since 9/11 we had also missed the incredible story on which it was based. You might be familiar with it, but on the chance that some of our readers are not, we’ll give a brief account.

“The Miracle of Stairway B” tells of the nothing-less-than-miraculous survival of a group of New York City firefighters, and one civilian, in the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, which had collapsed and crumbled around them.

The civilian was Josephine Harris, a 59-year-old Port Authority bookkeeper, who had made her way ‘down the stairs from the 73rd floor after skyjacked American Airlines Flight 11 struck the building at 8:46 a.m. She managed to reach the 14th or 15th floor, but, exhausted, she could go no farther.

It was on that landing of Stairway B where she encountered six members of FDNY Ladder Co. 6, who were also exiting the building, having been ordered to leave after the South Tower fell. The men literally supported her down 10 more floors.

They were somewhere between the fourth and first floors when the building began to shudder and there was a terrific rush of air and a horrific roar.

It was 10:28 a.m., and the North Tower was collapsing. (The South Tower had fallen at 9:58:59.)

When the shaking stopped and the dust settled enough for them to stop gasping for air, they realized they were still, unbelievably, alive.

The firefighters and Harris were in a pocket of shelter underneath a portion of the stairs that had, through some quirk of engineering, remained standing — surrounded by acres of ruins and thousands of tons of debris.

In an interview on “Dateline NBC” later in September, one of the firemen, Matt Komorowski, recalled: “An hour or two into the whole thing, I started seeing light at my feet. And it was dim at first and then all of a sudden, a beam of light shone at my feet. And that was hope that the outside was still there.”

“Mayday” calls from the trapped survivors were initially met with disbelief, but continued radio communication, including descriptions of exactly where in the building Stairway B had been located, and frequent blasts on a bullhorn siren eventually led rescuers to their whereabouts. And, following that beam of light, they had even begun to climb out.

But Harris was physically unable to climb out. And neither would Ladder 6 leave her behind. They waited in the smoldering ruins until she could be rescued.

It was sometime between 2:30 and 3 p.m. when they began the treacherous trek to safety across the mountain of rubble soon to be known as Ground Zero.

Researching this column, we learned that a few weeks later, Harris was a guest at Ladder 6’s Chinatown firehouse, where she was presented with an FDNY jacket bearing the words “Guardian Angel.” Yes, they had saved her, but they also believed that, had they not met her in that stairwell, they would not all have been in precisely the right spot to be sheltered from the collapse.

In January 2011, Harris died of a heart attack in her Brooklyn apartment at age 69.

Her funeral was held at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village, with Edward Cardinal Egan officiating at the Mass and FDNY officials and Mayor Rudy Giuliani among the mourners attending.

Firefighters, including members of Ladder 6, were the pallbearers.

Having carried her to safety a decade before, they were now, in the words of one, “carrying her home.”

(Editor’s note: “The Miracle of Stairway B” can be viewed at several sites online. Some refer to it as “Stairwell B.” You can read the complete “Dateline NBC* interview with the Ladder 6 firemen at 911research.wtc7.) 

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