2002: Jim Dwyer, The New York Times
Award for Short Writing
Friday, March 29, 2002
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Short writing

Jim Dwyer

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Fighting for life 50 floors up, with one tool and ingenuity

October 9, 2001

Now memories orbit around small things. None of the other window washers liked his old green bucket, but Jan Demczur, who worked inside 1 World Trade Center, found its rectangular mouth perfect for dipping and wetting his squeegee in one motion. So on the morning of the 11th, as he waited at the 44th-floor Sky Lobby to connect with elevators for higher floors, bucket and squeegee dangled from the end of his arm.

The time was 8:47 a.m. With five other men — Shivam Iyer, John Paczkowski, George Phoenix, Colin Richardson and another man whose identity could not be learned — Mr. Demczur (pronounced DEM- sir) boarded Car 69-A, an express elevator that stopped on floors 67 through 74.

The car rose, but before it reached its first landing, "We felt a muted thud," Mr. Iyer said. "The building shook. The elevator swung from side to side, like a pendulum."

Then it plunged. In the car, someone punched an emergency stop button. At that moment — 8:48 a.m. — 1 World Trade Center had entered the final 100 minutes of its existence. No one knew the clock was running, least of all the men trapped inside Car 69-A; they were as cut off 500 feet in the sky as if they had been trapped 500 feet underwater.

They did not know their lives would depend on a simple tool.

After 10 minutes, a live voice delivered a blunt message over the intercom. There had been an explosion. Then the intercom went silent. Smoke seeped into the elevator cabin. One man cursed skyscrapers. Mr. Phoenix, the tallest, a Port Authority engineer, poked for a ceiling hatch. Others pried apart the car doors, propping them open with the long wooden handle of Mr. Demczur's squeegee.

There was no exit.

They faced a wall, stenciled with the number "50." That particular elevator bank did not serve the 50th floor, so there was no need for an opening. To escape, they would have to make one themselves.

Mr. Demczur felt the wall. Sheetrock. Having worked in construction in his early days as a Polish immigrant, he knew that it could be cut with a sharp knife.

No one had a knife.

From his bucket, Mr. Demczur drew his squeegee. He slid its metal edge against the wall, back and forth, over and over. He was spelled by the other men. Against the smoke, they breathed through handkerchiefs dampened in a container of milk Mr. Phoenix had just bought.

Sheetrock comes in panels about one inch thick, Mr. Demczur recalled. They cut an inch, then two inches. Mr. Demczur's hand ached. As he carved into the third panel, his hand shook, he fumbled the squeegee and it dropped down the shaft.

He had one tool left: a short metal squeegee handle. They carried on, with fists, feet and handle, cutting an irregular rectangle about 12 by 18 inches. Finally, they hit a layer of white tiles. A bathroom. They broke the tiles.

One by one, the men squirmed through the opening, headfirst, sideways, popping onto the floor near a sink. Mr. Demczur turned back. "I said, `Pass my bucket out,' " he recalled.

By then, about 9:30, the 50th floor was already deserted, except for firefighters, astonished to see the six men emerge. "I think it was Engine Company 5," Mr. Iyer said. "They hustled us to the staircase."

On the excruciating single-file descent through the smoke, someone teased Mr. Demczur about bringing his bucket. "The company might not order me another one," he replied. At the 15th floor, Mr. Iyer said: "We heard a thunderous, metallic roar. I thought our lives had surely ended then." The south tower was collapsing. It was 9:59. Mr Demczur dropped his bucket. The firefighters shouted to hurry.

At 23 minutes past 10, they burst onto the street, ran for phones, sipped oxygen and, five minutes later, fled as the north tower collapsed. Their escape had taken 95 of the 100 minutes. "It took up to one and a half minutes to clear each floor, longer at the lower levels," said Mr. Iyer, an engineer with the Port Authority. "If the elevator had stopped at the 60th floor, instead of the 50th, we would have been five minutes too late.

"And that man with the squeegee. He was like our guardian angel."

Since that day, Mr. Demczur has stayed home with his wife and children. He has pieced together the faces of the missing with the men and women he knew in the stations of his old life: the security guard at the Japanese bank on the 93rd floor, who used to let him in at 6:30; the people at Carr Futures on 92; the head of the Port Authority. Their faces keep him awake at night, he says.

His hands, the one that held the squeegee and the other that carried the bucket, shake with absence.

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From the rubble, a picture and a friendship

October 23, 2001

Tim Sherman spotted the photograph near the end of his first day of digging, on the Friday after that Tuesday. The time of day, he recalls, was "after dark." He had been on the move since dawn. A gang from his job at the Middlesex Water Company had come to New York to help, with strong backs and water main know-how and willing spirits. In a way, there was nothing to do.

Around them, smoke heaved from shapes no human hand could form. How ever many tons of stuff were on the ground, the landscape fell heavier and longer on the eye. "There is no God," he remembers thinking.

The Middlesex crew grabbed hand tools and faced the wreckage at Liberty Plaza. "Digging. Bucketing. Whatever needed to be done," Mr. Sherman said.

Late that day, he raked a pile of ash, then saw the picture. Frozen in time and in 8 by 10 inches of vibrant colors, three cute kids stared at him from the ground: one boy just old enough for braces, another boy a few years younger, and a toddler sister.

The picture was sopping. He stuck it on a wall to dry, but it slid off. "If you put it back up there, it'll just fall again and get lost," a co-worker told Mr. Sherman, so he stashed it away. "This could be the last thing a mother or father saw before they died," Mr. Sherman would say.

Over the next two weeks or so, the fraternity of hard work, warm meals and caring people, changed Mr. Sherman's opinion about God. Back in New Jersey, his hometown paper, the Home News Tribune, ran an article about the water company crews helping out. The paper also published the picture Tim Sherman had saved.

All day after Brian Conroy saw the salvaged picture in the newspaper, he had a hard time concentrating on his job, managing a sales territory for Arnold Bread and Thomas' English Muffins. He knew those faces — knew the kids. Those were George Tabeek's children, and George worked at the trade center for the Port Authority.

Years ago, a decade or more, Mr. Tabeek owned a piece of a restaurant in Edison. Mr. Conroy tended bar there once a week. The Tabeek boys would visit their dad while he was watching the register. At closing time, the two men would share a pizza and news about his children. They were good friends, but work friends, so when the restaurant closed, they went about their lives.

Mr. Conroy recalled that the Tabeeks lived in Brooklyn, and he found two listings for them. On one call, an answering machine picked up. Mr. Conroy put the phone down. At the second number, a woman said hello.

Yes, this was the Tabeek household.

Mr. Conroy explained who he was, but fumbled trying to state his business. He cannot say if his heart was pounding or had simply stopped.

The woman finally figured out whom Mr. Conroy was talking about.

"Oh," she said. "Oh. George. He's right here. Do you want to speak to him?"

Mr. Conroy fell silent. The little hairs rose along his arms.

About 10 years ago, George Tabeek took his children to the Sears where his sister worked in the photography department and had the children sit for a portrait. Dana would have been about 3; Steven, 11; and young Georgie, 14.

The picture of the children followed him as he moved through jobs at the Port Authority, as Georgie became a New York City police officer, as Steven went to Saint John's University, and as Dana started high school at Bishop Kearney.

Mounted in a gold frame, the portrait sat on the edge of his credenza, in his office on the 35th floor of 2 World Trade Center. Mr. Tabeek, an engineer, was one of the people with the keys to everything. When he looked out the window across the plaza to the great spread of New York, in the corner of his view was an 8-by-10 picture of his children.

That awful morning, he had the good luck to be stopping for a doughnut in the plaza when the first plane hit. He then tested that fortune, running up 22 floors with firefighters to rescue people. He was inches from a fireman, Lt. Andrew Desperito, when the second building fell and took Lieutenant Desperito.

He told all this to Brian Conroy, the old friend he had shared pizza with in the life before. Mr. Conroy then told him about Tim Sherman the water worker, and the wet picture he had found buried in the ash.

For the first time in weeks, Mr. Tabeek said yesterday, he thought about the picture that sat in the corner of his window view, the small piece of his remembered sky.

He wanted it.

"I'll get it," Mr. Conroy said, and he did.

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A soothing cup of water, a vessel of plain kindness

November 22, 2001

Before strangers decided to bring cups of water to other strangers, the very air had become an accomplice to the hijackers. "It was like ground-up glass going down your throat as you were trying to catch your breath," Norma Hessic said.

"Like burning embers from a fireplace, it was big chunks," John Cerqueira said. "I couldn't even close my mouth. It was literally stuffed in every orifice. In your ears, your eye sockets."

"You couldn't see in front of you," Jeff Meisel said.

"It was black," Dee Howard said. "All I could do was pray and run."

For one infernal moment that morning, only the cold laws of physics ruled. The trade center towers, traveling at 50 miles per hour in powder form, chased thousands of people through the streets of Lower Manhattan, whipping into the soft tissues of their throats, trying to crush them from the inside out.

In the next instant, men and women emerged from shops and doorways, with cups of water, gauze, flashlights. Life was shoving back, seeking its own equilibrium.

Ms. Howard stood on the corner of Chambers and Centre Streets, a few blocks from the trade center, clutching Imez Graham, a friend from work. They had lost their building. They had lost their way home. They had lost their shoes.

Linda Mauro, leaving work at the Municipal Building, saw the two women powdered in white from their heads to their bare feet. She found some water and made them drink. They would not go into any building, so she walked with them, buying two pairs of slippers in Chinatown.

The Chinese shopkeepers opened spigots in their sinks, found some cups and passed drinks to Ms. Howard, Ms. Graham and thousands of others streaming past.

Norma Hessic stood on Church Street, near the Millenium Hotel, screaming in the darkness. "Someone stuck his hand out at me. He said, `Take my hand and don't let go,' " she remembered. "He took me three or four blocks, to an abandoned food cart; there was water and juice there. My throat was burning up."

Jeff Meisel fled along Broadway to Nassau Street, where Chino Chaudhary, the owner of an Indian restaurant called Diwan- E-Khaas, was pulling down his rolling gates. Mr. Chaudhary stopped and grabbed people stumbling past. "He dragged us into the store," Mr. Meisel said. "Made everyone go downstairs, to big slop sinks, to wash off. He gave you bottles of water. He wouldn't let you leave until it had cleared outside. He wouldn't hear about money. I never was in there before."

As John Cerqueira and a friend, Mike Benfante, descended from the 81st floor of the north tower, they saw Tina Hansen in a wheelchair, behind a glass door on 68. Mr. Cerqueira, 22, and Mr. Benfante, 36, carried her down 68 floors, out to an ambulance. No more than five minutes later, the building collapsed, all but suffocating them.

They staggered onto West Street, where someone handed them water. "I think it was the Jewish ambulance guys," Mr. Cerqueira said. "They gave me oxygen. We were sharing it."

The refugees streamed north. Aniko and John Delaney collected their daughter, Sophie, 2, at the Trinity Church day care center, two blocks from the trade center. Covered with soot, the family rolled Sophie up Sixth Avenue, then spotted an outdoor food station, staffed by people from Da Silvano restaurant at Houston Street. As fast as the workers could make sandwiches, they were handing them away. The owner, Silvano Marchetto, brought his cordless phones outside so the escapees could call home.

"We were parched," Mrs. Delaney said. "Water was the No. 1 thing we were looking for. He had it all out on the tables outside. Right on the path of all the people heading north."

With little Sophie fretting and crying, Mr. Marchetto sent the Delaneys from his restaurant to his apartment so they could wash up and Sophie could take a nap.

All this, and much more like it, happened anonymously in the minutes and hours right after the attack, without a word of instruction or a second of preparation.

None of those who helped felt they were special. "Just a tiny microcosm of what was going on," said Linda Mauro, who found water and slippers in Chinatown for Dee Howard and Imez Graham. "They wanted to hug me, then stopped because of the ashes. I said, `Don't even worry about it.' We hugged."

"Not just us was helping," said Chino Chaudhary, who dragged Jeff Meisel and others into his Indian restaurant on Nassau Street. "Everybody was. From the Duane Reade, anyone with a shop."

"Nobody complained about nothing," said Silvano Marchetto, the Florentine with the restaurant in Greenwich Village, who fed perhaps a thousand people that day.

The moment a war begins is chiseled into history. Acts of grace linger only in the memory of small things.

After Theresa Leone escaped from the north tower, she made her way home to Morris Park in the Bronx.

That night, in her bag, she found a plastic cup that had been full of water when someone — a stranger, she doesn't know who — handed it to her as she passed the restaurant supply district along the Bowery.

"I'm going to hold onto it," Mrs. Leone said. "I don't know why. The whole thing means so much. I was privileged."

Articles in this series are reporting on workaday objects that resonate in unusual ways in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

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