From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Do Unto Others

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.

Ambrose Redmoon

Of all the sadness that came out of September 11, one story shines like a jewel in the dust. It is a story of giving and receiving—a story of saving and being saved and not knowing which is which—the story of the firefighters of Ladder Company 6 and Josephine.

More than three hundred firefighters perished in the tragedy of the World Trade Center. On September 29, at a time when the country was desperate for good news, NBC Dateline reported “The Miracle of Ladder Company 6.” By the time I sat around their table in the back of the firehouse two weeks later and heard them recount it, the firefighters of Ladder 6 had said these words many times, but every word was still flooded with the vibrant sound of their gratitude.

They had gone to the World Trade Center that day to give. To rescue. That’s what firefighters do. They run into burning buildings against instinct and nature, while the rest of us are running out, trying to save our own lives. They had entered the building at Number One, as had so many of their brothers, after the first plane had mortally wounded it. People were streaming down beside them, saying words of thanks and encouragement to them, offering them drinks from the machines and telling them they should get a pay raise.

They, in turn, offered words of encouragement back. “It’s over for you,” the firefighters said to those lucky enough to be exiting. “Go out through the lobby and go home now. You’re okay.”

The stairwells were narrow, only room enough for one person to move past another in either direction. Each of the firefighters climbing the steps carried at least a hundred pounds of equipment. At the twenty-seventh floor, some of them learned that the other tower had gone down, and the effort to save the building was rejected for the more pressing job of saving the people. Somehow in all the confusion, somewhere between the twelfth and fifteenth floors, the men of Ladder 6 were entrusted with the safety of a sixty-year-old bookkeeper named Josephine Harris. Josephine worked on the seventy-third floor, and she had been trudging down those sixty flights of steps through smoke and heat until her desire and ability to go on seemed completely exhausted.

Now getting her safely out was their assignment. So, despite her unwillingness to continue down the stairs, the firefighters encouraged her on. They reminded her of her grandchildren, who were waiting for her when she escaped the building. They told her she could do it. They cajoled. They encouraged. They promised to get her out if she would just keep moving.

On the fourth floor, she finally stopped in her tracks. She could not take another step. Would not take another step. She seemed willing to let them go on without her, but she was done walking. Never even thinking about leaving her, the firefighters began looking around for a chair on which to carry her down the rest of the stairs.

They were tired, too, and burdened by the heat and the weight of their equipment, and they were anxious to evacuate the building. But because some of them were not aware of the other building’s collapse, and because the towers had always seemed somehow immortal, they did not feel at that moment that there was great urgency.

None of them expected the terrible, otherworldly, thunderous sound; none of them expected the rumble that, in an instant, signaled catastrophe. Time stands still at moments like that. They stretch out long enough to give people pause, to consider what dying would mean. Bill Butler thought, I didn’t even get to say good-bye to my wife and kids. Clearly, this was it. They had done their best, and now it was over. They prayed for it to be over quickly; they repented and asked for forgiveness; they thought of loved ones.

And then everything turned to dust around them. One hundred and five floors above them came tumbling down, each crushing the one under it with greater force. Within seconds the proud, shiny tower had been turned to sand-sized pieces of rubble, taking thousands of lives in its shattering wake.

From all vantage points, there was no way for anyone to survive this disaster, and no obvious reason why the staircase at which Josephine had halted should have been spared. But miracles have their own reasons. And as the dust settled, Captain John (Jay) Jonas, Sal D’Agostino, Bill Butler, Tommy Falco, Mike Meldrum, Matt Komorowski and Josephine, thrown wildly through the debris, were left whole, if not exactly standing, seemingly buried alive.

For four hours they were trapped in the rubble, wondering what was happening around them and how long they would be trapped. D’Agostino found a can of Sunkist orange soda, which seemed a drink of the gods to the thirsty team. Josephine was “a trooper,” D’Agostino said of her. He offered her a drink and she declined, being brave and stoic. When, after a while, she said she was cold, Falco gave her his coat and even held her hand when she said she was scared. They had no idea what was happening around them; they could only hope that there were efforts being made to find survivors. Little did they know how ecstatic firefighters would be to discover that anyone had survived this disaster. Little did they know that the search for them was frantic and urgent for all concerned—those lost and those desperate to find them.

While they waited, some of them methodically repacked the rope in case they would need it later, a routine that now gave them something to do. A cell phone played a part in the outcome, as it had in the tragedy of Flight 93. This time it was when Butler, who couldn’t reach the firehouse through all the chaos of the phone system, called his wife. She called the firehouse and let them know of the plight of the missing men.

Finally, they were found. Rescued.

But it had been an intense time that they had shared with Josephine, and the six were not ready to turn her over to another company. D’Agostino said that when a firefighter finally discovered them there, he was so pumped up that he rushed to take Josephine from them, calling her “Doll” and saying, ‘We’ll take care of you, Doll. We got you.”

But after all those hours of sharing the limbo between life and death with her, it seemed to them inappropriate not to give her the honor due her. D’Agostino said he grabbed the rescuer’s arm and explained, “Her name isn’t Doll. Her name is Josephine.” When he thinks of it now, he shakes his head. Even in the midst of the excitement of recovery and the terrible fright through which each soul had journeyed, the other firefighter recognized the holiness of the moment and apologized, saying, “Sorry, Josephine, we’ll take good care of you.’”

Ultimately, because special equipment was required to remove her from the wasteland that Ground Zero had become, Josephine was taken away from the men of Ladder 6 and they parted.

As I sat around the table with Sal and Mike and Bill and Tom and listened to them tell it one more time, I could see that the talking about it was part of the process—that we understand so much through stories. They had a reunion with Josephine at a later date, gave her a special jacket and called her their “guardian angel.” While she says that they saved her life, they contend the opposite. They believe that by insisting that they stop there at that spot, at the only place left standing at Ground Zero, holding it as a sacred space, Josephine had saved their lives.

Judith Simon Prager

Reprinted with permission of Marshall Ramsey. ©2001 Copley News Service.

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