As we approach the 20th anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack on American soil, we are reminded of the string of tragedies that occurred that day. Four hijacked planes. Two imploding skyscrapers. The home of the most powerful army on earth went up in flames.
Nearly 3,000 people died that day in plane crashes, collapsing buildings and desperate leaps from burning buildings. Still, such disasters tend to leave only a few people standing out as unlikely survivors.
Combined, the Twin Towers had 198 elevators, a system where express lifts took passengers to “Sky Lobbies” for transfer to local floor service. On 9/11, an estimated 200 people died in or near elevators. Some plunged to their deaths after the planes severed elevator cables; others incinerated as flames shot down shafts. Still others perished in stalled lifts when the buildings collapsed.
At 8:45am, window washer Jan Demczur was transferring at the North Tower’s 44th Floor Sky Lobby for an elevator to floors 67-74. He boarded a lift with five others: Shivam Iyer, John Paczkowski, George Phoenix, Colin Richardson and another man whose identity remains unclear.
Seconds after their ascension began, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the building. The elevator shook violently, then stopped. Soon, an intercom announced an explosion, and they figured they’d better find their own way out. They poked at the ceiling hatch and pried open the doors.
They were between express landings – no exit, just a wall, marked “50.” Demczur rapped on it. Sheetrock. Thank God for flimsy construction materials. Were it concrete, they were goners.
They had just one tool: Demczur’s squeegee handle. They shaved away one, two, three inches… then hit tiles. Smashing through them, they crawled out… into a bathroom.
The men made a beeline for the stairwell, reaching street level at 10:23am – five minutes before collapse. The life-saving squeegee is displayed at the National Museum of American History.