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A stunning tale of escape traps its hero in replay

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 2002


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.

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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.

* * *

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.