9/11 anniversary: New York firefighters describe moment towers collapsed, impact of attacks 20 years on

Firefighters on the ground during the 9/11 attacks have described the frightening moments the planes hit the World Trade Center and the impact that day has 20 years later.

Nearly 3000 people were killed after al-Qaeda operatives hijacked four planes in the United States on September 11, 2001. Two were flown into New York's Twin Towers at the World Trade Center complex, a third into the Pentagon, while a fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field. Among the dead were 343 firefighters. 

Peter Hayden, a former Chief of the Fire Department of New York, and Jay Jonas, a deputy chief, spoke to The AM Show on Friday about being on the ground at the World Trade Center in the aftermath.

"It was a very scary moment," Jonas said, describing approaching the North Tower after the first attack. 

"We were all talking about what we saw on the way into the World Trade Center. That's when the second plane hit the South Tower. We heard a lot of explosions, we saw pieces of flaming debris falling down outside the building. We didn't really know what that was until a man came running from outside and yelled out, 'a second plane has just hit South Tower'. The lobby went silent."

Upon that news, wondering if more planes would follow, Jonas told The AM Show a firefighter said they may not live through the day.

"We stopped and we acknowledged what he had said. We said, 'you are right, we may not'. We took the time to shake each other's hands, and wish each other 'good luck', and 'I hope to see you later'," he said.

"Out of all those guys all those guys I was surrounded by when the second plane hit the South Tower, I am the only one that's alive."

When the North Tower collapsed, he was still inside. 

"Luck was on my side that day," he said. "We happened to be in the middle of rescuing a woman and she fell to the floor on the fourth floor. It was almost like that is where she wanted to make her stand." 

"The way the building collapsed, it kind of peeled away like a banana. Our stairway was right in the centre of the building. We were the banana at the bottom, and the collapse kind of ran out of engine. In order to survive you either had to be where we were or you had to be a lot faster. If you're on the first floor, you didn't make it. If you were above me, you didn't make it."

Jonas said he was trapped in the rubble. 

"One thing that saved us, after a period of time, it was over four hours later, was the smoke and dust cleared to a point where sunlight started to shine through the rubble. We were able to figure out a way to get out of our predicament by breaching a hole through the rubble."

Twenty years on from that day, Jonas said he proudly remembers the actions of the other firefighters. 

"Firefighters were in those stairways thinking that we were going to get hit again, while we went upstairs to try to get as many people as we could," he said.  

"Today, it's always gonna be tied to grief and bereavement, but as time goes on, I remember my fellow firefighters and the actions that they were taking to save people's lives. I was fortunate to be on the same fireground as them and and be able to witness that."

Peter Hayden and Jay Jonas.
Peter Hayden and Jay Jonas. Photo credit: The AM Show / Reuters.

When the South Tower collapsed - the second tower to be struck but the first to fall - Hayden said "a lot of debris and dust" was pushed to the North Tower lobby, where he was operating, forcing us to evacuate".

"Father Judge was with us and he was killed. We had to give the order to evacuate in the North Tower, and with Father Judge, a number of firefighters and chief officers over there with us, we carried out Father Judge. Then we reported to the command post out on the street."

He said very early on it became obvious it was a terrorist attack. 

"Once the second plane hit the tower, we were all pretty sure, probably almost definite, that this was a terrorist attack."

Hayden told The AM Show that day continues to have consequences for firefighters' health.

"We were told very early on that we would have a problem moving forward with health issues from the firefighters exposures to their time operating down there in the Trade Center," he said.

"I specifically mention the Chief Medical Officer at the time saying, within the first five years we would not see much, a slight increase would occur in the five to 10 year mark, and at the 10 year mark, we would see a significant increase in the number of World Trade Center-related illnesses, particularly cancer and lung problems.

"The Chief Medical Officer was right on the spot. Right now, we have a tremendous number of firefighters that are being treated."

A memorial service was to be held at Auckland's Sky Tower, which a number of firefighters would then climb. But due to the current COVID-19 outbreak, that has had to be postponed.

Tony Scott, a firefighter who organises the Firefighter Sky Tower Stair Challenge, told The AM Show there will be a virtual event instead on Saturday.

"We've got footage from New York, and we're going to have a preset play and then we're going to hook over live to New York tomorrow. The guys from Brooklyn are going to read the 343 names back to us… we're reading our 66 names and their 343 names."

Tony Scott.
Tony Scott. Photo credit: The AM Show.

He said photos of the 343 firefighters are normally put up inside the Sky Tower during the climb. 

"One of the things that have been really touching for me is when the [New York] Chiefs have been here in the past and bring those photos up, and then just telling you about these guys as their friends and what they were doing, it becomes so personal."

He mentioned what Hayden previously told him about his experience on 9/11.

"[Chief Hayden] was right there, giving orders at the bottom. He has told me straight to my face, he didn't know what to do to a degree. He said, you know what, I just took my time, I thought about it,I recomposed and then I gave my orders," Scott said.

"I think the biggest thing I can take from meeting these guys is that when you get put into any position - this is for anyone in life - just take a deep breath, have a think about it, and then go for it."