A stunning tale of escape traps its hero in replay
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Sunlight seeps through the translucent curtains on his living room window, making the lacquered matrioshka dolls on the wall case gleam. Sitting on the sofa, Jan Demczur leafs through a thick binder of news clippings about his heroic Sept. 11 escape, still in a daze at the story they tell.
He stays home often now, speaking more Ukrainian than English, a language still difficult for him. When he does venture out, he's sometimes overcome with a sense of fear, his head dizzy and heavy, like a big ball of lead. It's been almost a year, but Mr. Demczur has still not returned to his job as one of the workers who wash the endless sheets of glass stacked to the sky in Manhattan.
It's become a safe new routine, sitting here amid pillows adorned with his wife's cross stitchings, telling how he survived. His ordeal was compelling he was trapped in an elevator with five others after the first plane struck Tower 1, and barely escaped by clawing through the walls with only his squeegee and media from around the world have since flocked to him, reporting his story of survival, and the tiny tool that saved him.
Before, he'd wake up at 4:45 a.m., five days a week, jump on the train to the city, and do his job. Like the thousands of lunch-pail workers who pass each day through the tunnels to the island, Demczur wasn't part of the Manhattan clichés: the vaunting ambition, the ceaseless pace, the glare of art and commerce. Instead, like the steel frames within a skyscraper's facade, he was one of the people behind the city's glamour, those who built, maintained, and ultimately removed piece-by-piece the twisted wreckage of the World Trade Center.
"Window cleaners have been much like the glass they clean: transparent," says Richard Fabry, publisher of an industry magazine.
But Jan Demczur [pronounced John DEMshur] was never a guy to seek attention. Small and demure, he spoke little, and except for occasional mirth in his pale blue eyes, he revealed few emotions.
Content with a predictable routine, he rarely missed a day at work, was honest and industrious,paid his mortgage, and spent time with his wife and kids. His Jersey City house, which had a view of the Twin Towers, was just minutes from the PATH train that took him straight to the sprawling Trade Center, a place he liked to call his second home.
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Demczur grew up in Poland and was a plumber by trade. He found himself in the middle of the Solidarity movement in the late 1970s and the turmoil that would begin communism's demise. Even in his 20s, his sense of duty made him keep his distance from the radicals, and he just tried to do his job.
He came to the US in 1980 to visit his aunt in Queens. He stayed, illegally, and worked as a plumber, making $2.50 an hour. In 1987, he married Nadia, who says she fell in love with his calm, his stability, and the fact that he could do everything around the house. Her father helped Demczur get a union window-cleaning job, with better wages and benefits. In 1991, he started his routine, working at the World Trade Center.
"He's not the most vocal person," says Gerard McEneaney, a colleague of Demczur at Union Local 32 BJ. "You wouldn't characterize him as outspoken he's a very soft-spoken, unassuming man."
Now, bewildering change. After living through the attacks, his routine shattered, Demczur has been swept into a vortex of publicity, and he finds himself speaking more than he ever has.
Suddenly, he's a celebrity. In February, the manufacturer of the squeegee flew him to Reno, Nev., for the annual meeting of the International Window Cleaners Association. There, he spoke in front of hundreds of people.
Those who heard his speech recall a rapt audience. Even though his broken English was difficult to follow, Demczur's presence alone had a powerful effect. "It was just a few months after 9/11," says Mr. Fabry, "and, in some ways, it was an emotional outlet for us to feel connected."
To Demczur's astonishment, people came up to shake his hand, take pictures with him, and even get his autograph.
Flying to Reno wasn't easy. Planes still make him nervous, but the trip was an accomplishment, he thinks. Although he doesn't say it, all the attention is kind of fun at times. Acquaintances say he's basking in the well-deserved glory, even as he says he'd rather move on.
But the phone keeps ringing three TV requests came during interviews for this story alone and Demczur rarely says no to an interview.
"If I answer the phone, I'll say, 'no,' " says his wife Nadia, exasperated. "He can never say no. He wants to please everyone." After enduring their dad's endless interviews, his two children, too, are getting upset, and they ask him why he has to keep talking about the ordeal. When interviewers come now, Nadia is cordial and polite, but has little to say. The children leave the room.
There are other alienating moments. Demczur rarely drives now, because he feels dizzy behind the wheel, afraid to change lanes. On a recent trip to Canada, when he wanted to take a shift driving, his daughter became scared, and refused to sit near him. He gave it a try anyway, but had to stop after five minutes. He says he felt guilty and useless when his wife did all the driving.
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The outer rhythms of Demczur's work routines and family life have abruptly changed this past year. And the hero's role others have thrust upon him masks an inner life in turmoil.
"For me, when I come home, I'm never thinking about the media or something," Demczur reflects. "I [was] just, whew, whoa I said, I'm lucky. God helped me out. I'm coming home, I'm staying home with my children. I know it's over, it's behind me, but the life's all changed.
"I can't sleep. I'm shaking. So many of my friends died, and I think, my God! You don't want to cry, but tears are coming by itself."
After months of psychotherapy and medication, he still wakes in the night, remembering faces: the guard at the Japanese bank on 93; the receptionist at Carr Futures on 92; a new employee who'd asked him where to go that morning. He was working with them the morning of Sept. 11.
* * *
That Tuesday, he punched in at 6 a.m. and spent most of the morning cleaning glass doors and partitions on floors 90 to 95 in the North Tower, the impact zone. He worked through his 8 a.m. break so he could finish those top floors early otherwise he'd be there until 9. He finished at 8:20 and took the elevator down to the 43rd-floor cafeteria.
At about 8:45, finishing his coffee and danish, he left the cafeteria, and dashed to make an express elevator about to run up to the 77th floor. At 8:48, as he and five others zipped up the shaft, they felt a jolt and then the building sway. The elevator dropped before the emergency brakes ground it to a halt. Later, when smoke started seeping into the car, they knew they had to try to get out.
Demczur quietly took charge. After they pried open the elevator doors, he saw the surface was drywall. "Does anyone have a knife?" he asked. No, nothing. So Demczur started chopping at the wall with the 18-inch blade of the squeegee. When the blade broke and fell down the shaft, he used the handle. It took over an hour, but the six men took turns scraping and poking, and finally burst through to a men's bathroom on the 50th floor. Startled firefighters guided them in different directions. Demczur went down the stairs.
The other tower collapsed at 9:59, when he was at the 11th floor. Soon engulfed in darkness, dust, and confusion, he put his hand on the shoulder of the stranger ahead, continuing down. Seeing him in a maintenance uniform, firefighters screamed to him, "How do we get out?" Demczur had them pan the smoke and dust-filled hallways on the third floor with their flashlights, and he spotted an exit to another stairwell. He instinctively held it open as others went through first, until a fireman grabbed him by the arm and led him out.
Outside, emergency workers gave him oxygen, and water to rinse his eyes. He made his way to the West Side Highway, just a few blocks away, and was finally able to see the sky. "When I look up, and see the tower burning, I turned like ice," Demczur recalls. "Everything was freezing in me." Then, the antennas of Tower 1 start to teeter.
"I start to run. I kept looking back, saw the building banging down like a pancake." As he ran, his eyes were burning, his head was pounding, the dust was choking him, and then his body felt numb. A few more blocks away, he noticed how beautiful the day was and, sheepishly admits he began to touch himself to see if he was really alive, like a scene from a silly cartoon.
Demczur couldn't have imagined he'd tell this story to so many, or that his squeegee handle and uniform would become a part of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. He'll relive a lot of it again this week, when he attends ceremonies in New York and Washington, D.C. But by the end of the year, he hopes to be able to get back to work.
"It is a different kind of life. But I prefer the way it was, when people were alive," Demzcur says.