Skip to comments.WTC 9 to paralyzed pal: 'You're coming with us'
Posted on 10/16/2001 8:27:08 AM PDT by Incorrigible
WTC 9 to paralyzed pal: 'You're coming with us'
BY WAYNE WOOLLEY
When the hijacked jet slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, John Abruzzo felt the building sway from his office on the 69th floor.
Abruzzo, a 41-year-old accountant for the Port Authority, knew it was bad. He also knew how vulnerable he was.
Abruzzo is a quadriplegic, and in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, it took a group of co- workers and emergency workers six hellish hours to carry him to safety.
This time, Abruzzo wheeled himself into the hallway in his motorized chair, and was unnerved to see no one. Then he saw the familiar, but frantic, faces of nine colleagues who were looking for him -- even as they told others to evacuate.
Peter Bitwinski, a co-worker who had helped Abruzzo escape in 1993, knew from the impact that this time was far more grave.
"The first one (in 1993) was this low-level rumbling," Bitwinski said. "This, this was like someone driving a monster truck at 400 mph into your house."
Bitwinski also knew something else: There was no way they were leaving Abruzzo behind.
"It was more or less a collective decision that they were going to bring me down one way or the other," Abruzzo said. "The evacuation procedure says (wheelchair- bound) people should wait for the firefighters, but there was no discussion of leaving me behind."
For the next 80 minutes and 69 floors, the group of 10 -- most of whom have worked together for 20 years -- stayed together, as nine carried the 250-pound Abruzzo to safety.
Somewhere near the 20th floor, firefighters coming up the stairs told the group they should leave Abruzzo behind.
"No way," said Tony Pecora, 36, of Fanwood. "John is coming with us."
The journey down began with a clumsy search for an evacuation chair, a rescue device that Abruzzo says looks like "a giant baby stroller." The Port Authority bought a number of the $1,000 chairs after the 1993 attack.
Without the evacuation chair, Abruzzo would have to be carried down the stairs in what would have been another six-hour ordeal.
"John, where's your chair?" Bitwinski asked. Abruzzo wasn't sure.
Bitwinski and Pecora started searching closets and storage areas. They found it behind a stack of boxes.
Ten minutes had passed since the impact. As they fumbled with the chair, the 69th floor was beginning to fill with smoke. Finally, they lifted Abruzzo's 6-foot-4 frame into the chair, which has wheels and sled skis for going down stairs.
The flight down began.
As they passed through the 50s and the 40s, the smoke began to thicken. At the 44th floor, Gerald Simpkins, 33, of Jersey City guided the group from Stairwell C to B.
"Less smoke, but a lot hotter," Simpkins said.
On that floor, the group came across a vending machine pried open by firefighters to provide drinks for the people fleeing the hot, smoky building.
They stopped to rest and have a quick drink. Abruzzo noticed that his colleagues' dress shirts were clinging to their bodies.
"I wasn't breaking a sweat and these guys were dripping," Abruzzo said.
They got moving again, joking in the face of terror, the way only people who have worked together for decades can.
They chided Abruzzo about his weight.
"Go on a diet before we have to do this again," someone said.
Anytime he shifted in the chair, they would grab and steady him.
"John, we don't mean to be touching you in any inappropriate ways," Phil Caffrey, 41, of Rutherford remembers saying.
All levity ended at the 21st floor, when the collapse of the South Tower announced itself with a rumbling that shook the stairwell and knocked out the lights.
Pecora and Caffrey heard the words "Two is down, Two is down" crackle from a fireman's radio, and urged everyone to move even faster.
At the 10th floor, the group was halted by firefighters, who checked lower floors to make sure the path was clear.
No one remembers how long they waited.
"It felt like a lifetime," Pecora said.
When firefighters gave the all clear, the group started moving again. Exhausted and hot, their lungs burning, they pushed to go even faster.
"We were practically carrying John by this point," said Mike Ambrosio, 41, of North Bergen.
The group finally hit the lobby, where they saw shards of glass, paper and furniture scattered everywhere. They moved toward the heavy glass entrance doors, the only thing separating them from the cooler outside air -- and safety.
The doors were jammed. After all that work, they were still trapped.
But a firefighter on the outside had seen the group carrying the big man in the chair across the lobby, and smashed a window to allow them to escape.
The group made it outside. Only then did they feel the burning in their arms, legs and backs -- the total muscular exhaustion -- from the strain of carrying a 250-pound man down 69 flights of stairs.
"We just dropped John," said Mike Curci, 40, of Edison.
It was then that someone looked skyward and realized that people were jumping from the towers -- and landing nearby.
"Let's keep moving north," someone said. The group started wheeling Abruzzo north on West Street.
They were five blocks away when the North Tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. They had been outside for less than 10 minutes.
Ten minutes. The difference between life and death for Abruzzo and the nine people who saved his life while risking their own.
"If any of the things happened the way they did in 1993, we wouldn't have made it," Abruzzo said. "If the stairways had been more crowded, if we didn't have the evacuation chair, forget about it."
Everyone from the group made it home that night, except for Bitwinski, who stayed with Abruzzo at Beth Israel Medical Center while he was treated for smoke inhalation.
All but Abruzzo, who lives in Queens, have returned to work at makeshift offices in Jersey City.
Before he can go back, he needs a new wheelchair and a custom- made van to replace those buried at Ground Zero.
Meanwhile, Abruzzo -- who has been paralyzed since a diving accident on Rockaway Beach in 1974 -- has had time to think about friendship.
"I've talked to each of them individually. What do you say, 'Thanks'? What does that mean? I don't know what to say to each of them half of the time," Abruzzo said. "They saved my life. I'm here today because of those guys."
Abruzzo's colleagues say the word "hero" should be reserved for the firefighters and cops they passed on the way down.
"It comes down to this," Pecora said. "If you were in his shoes, you'd want somebody to help you."
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Both are appropriate.
These guys should have statues erected in their honor in every town square across the fruited plain.
Being as this fella was a regular fulltimer, you'd kind of think, well....you know; like I said, somebody (moi) needed to ask this question.
Probably the suposition that lighting never stikes twice. It was probably big and clunky and thus was moved around by the office manager alot.
Hummmm, I would define hero as someone who unselfishly risks their life to help save the life of another. Under this definition, these 9 people are unquestionably "heros" and may God bless them.