NEW YORK >> The 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 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. 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 Jonas — he was then a captain — survived because they paused to help Harris, a bookkeeper for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as they rushed to leave the north tower? Or had Harris, whose legs were weakened by fatigue, been lucky enough to live because of them?
Jonas spoke on Saturday. On Wednesday, members of the Fire Department — this time, the Emergency Medical Service — again rushed to help Harris, after being summoned to her apartment in Brooklyn by a 911 call at 2:20 a.m.
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.
News of Harris’ 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,” 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,” 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.”
That 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 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?”’ 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 it.”
Firefighter Bill Butler had his arm around Harris’ shoulders. They moved as fast as possible, but Harris collapsed around the fourth floor, “and was yelling at us to leave her,” Jonas said.
“We weren’t going to leave her,” he said.
Harris first went to the firehouse 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 ubiquitous requests for interviews, to retell the story of what they had endured.
The 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 Harris and the six men — Firefighters Matt Komorowski, Mike Meldrum and Sal D’Agostino as well as Firefighters Butler and Falco and 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 survive.”
“She was happy when she was around us,” 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.
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 altogether after her job was moved to Newark, N.J., Johnson added.
Without a job, 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 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,” Johnson said.
Like that day in the tower when she asked the firefighters to go on without her, 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.
“I only found out about her health problems when I went into her apartment after she passed away and looked through her papers,” Johnson said. “I come to find out that she was in and out of the hospital.”
Along with medical documents, Johnson found unpaid utility bills and paperwork that showed 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.