FIRE chief Jay Jonas was desperately trying to rescue a terrified woman from the World Trade Center on 9/11 when one of the Twin Towers collapsed on top of him.
Jay, his crew and bookkeeper Josephine Harris were trapped between the second and fourth floors in a stairwell as steel, concrete and dust came crashing down around them.
For four hours he feared they would not get out alive as rescuers battled to reach them.
But today, in an exclusive interview with The Sun on Sunday to mark the 20th anniversary of the attack, Jay describes the moment he finally saw the New York skyline again.
Recalling poking his head out from the rubble, he said: “I looked up and I could see a sliver of blue sky.
“I said, ‘Guys, there used to be 106 floors over our heads — now I see sunshine. I think we’re on top of the World Trade Center’.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I saw what was left of the facade of the exterior of the World Trade Center. It was eerie.
“You could see smoke and a vast rubble field. It looked like we just got bombed.”
On the morning of September 11 2001, four co-ordinated terrorist attacks were unleashed by Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda. Almost 3,000 people were killed and more than 6,000 others were injured.
There were 2,606 deaths in the World Trade Center alone but amazingly, the fire chief was not one of them
He survived because he and his team had been slowly coaxing terrified Josephine down the stairs of the North Tower.
She had fallen to the floor on the fourth storey and had been refusing to move.
Everything above the fifth and below the second floor was completely destroyed.
The fire chief, 63, said: “If she hadn’t fallen on the fourth floor, we probably would not have survived.
“I see the videos of the World Trade Center collapsing and I just shake my head because firemen don’t survive one-storey garage collapses, let alone 110-storey buildings.
“It’s almost not believable, even though I lived through it.
“Josephine survived because of us — but if we hadn’t stopped with her on the fourth floor we would have been in a bad spot. We saved her life, but she may have saved ours. She was our guardian angel.”
Jay was working for the New York City Fire Department’s Ladder Company Six in Chinatown, a mile from the World Trade Center, and was having breakfast in his firehouse when the first plane roared low across the Manhattan skyline.
Josephine survived because of us – We saved her life, but she may have saved ours. She was our guardian angel.Jay Jonas
Five terrorists had hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 out of Boston and crashed it into the North Tower at 8.46am.
The chief jumped into his fire truck with his company to head across town.
He said: “As we were going across Manhattan, there was a panoramic view of the skyline and you could see the North Tower with large gaping holes in it.
“Fire and smoke was coming out. It was a little overwhelming — you had to calm yourself down.
“I had almost 22 years on the fire department but I had never seen or experienced anything like this.”
The crew parked close to the blazing North Tower and ran towards the entrance as a piece of the building struck their vehicle.
Jay said: “We saw two badly burned people on the ground.
“They were in the elevators when the plane hit and vapours from the jet fuel went down the elevator shaft and ignited.”
At 9.03am he saw a black shadow and heard a loud explosion — United Airlines Flight 175 had just crashed into the South Tower.
He said: “We knew then we were at war but we didn’t know with who.
I was terrified. It was like watching an old Frankenstein movie. You’re waiting for the monster to pop out at any time. It’s coming for you.Jay Jonas
“The lobby went quiet. One fireman looked up and said, ‘We may not live through today’. We took the time to shake each other’s hands and wish each other good luck.”
He instructed his crew of five firefighters to climb the North Tower on a heroic search and rescue mission.
Chief Jonas said: “The last thing I told them was, ‘They are trying to kill us, boys. Let’s go’.
“To their credit they all said, ‘Alright Cap, we’re with you’.”
They were trying to get to the 96th floor, where the Boeing 767 had hit, each with 100lb of equipment on their back.
As they made their ascent, a stream of survivors shouted encouragement to the first responders going the other way.
Reaching the 27th floor, they heard a loud noise outside and the building swayed violently back and forth, making it hard to stay on their feet.
He said: “The South Tower had just collapsed. We knew what that meant.
“I was terrified. It was like watching an old Frankenstein movie. You’re waiting for the monster to pop out at any time. It’s coming for you.”
The chief instructed his men to leave the building and saw other acts of heroism as he made his way down the North Tower.
It was around the 20th floor that Jay and his crew ran into 59-year-old Josephine, a bookkeeper for the Port Authority of New York, crying in a doorway.
Every second wasted was one second closer to us not getting out.Jay Jonas
She had walked down from the 73rd floor but was having trouble taking the stairs due to an old injury — so one of the firefighters put his arm around her and began helping her.
Jay said: “Every second wasted was one second closer to us not getting out.
But I looked at her and she was distraught. We had to bring her with us, but our descent was greatly slowed. We took turns comforting her. We’re used to calamity, she was not.
“The whole time my stomach is in a knot. We get to the tenth floor and I’m starting to allow myself the luxury of thinking, ‘Jeez, we might make it outta here’.
“I started being emboldened — until we make it to the fourth floor and Josephine falls to the floor and starts yelling at us to leave her alone.”
Instead of leaving Josephine, Chief Jonas broke into a nearby office to look for a chair to carry her on. But then the building started to collapse.
He said: “I dived for the floor. Every time a floor would hit another, there was a tremendous vibration.
“As the collapse got closer, the vibrations became more violent and it was louder. You could hear the sound of twisting steel all over the place.
“It also created tornado-like winds and we were being pummelled by debris as the building came down
“Then it stopped and we were in complete darkness. We were coughing and gagging or pulling debris out of our mouths, eyes, ears and noses.”
Jay gave a roll call — his five crew members and Josephine had all survived with minor injuries.
I said to everyone, ‘Look, we survived. We’re not only going home. We’re going home today’.Jay Jonas
They were entombed in the stairwell and had no reason to believe the whole building had collapsed — because they were alive. But they could not carry on down the stairwell, which was blocked by debris.
Jay said: “We were hampered by lack of visibility. We were breathing in all this dust and smoke.
“I came to the realisation that I’d better put out a mayday myself.
“I said to everyone, ‘Look, we survived. We’re not only going home. We’re going home today’.”
While they were trapped, other explosions went on around them. The chief said: “Mike Meldrum, my senior guy, rolled his body on top of Josephine to shield her from the debris.
“She cried out that she was scared. I said, ‘Look, we’re all a little scared. Just hang in there’. And she did.”
Chief Jonas was promoted to battalion chief five days after 9/11.
The father of three is now chief of the FDNY’s 7th Division in the Bronx.
He and Josephine kept in touch for years after 9/11, sharing stages and parades together.
She died in 2011 after suffering a heart attack.
Jay added: “Her last act was to call the fire department because she knew she was having a heart attack. She was a brave lady.
“Everything that was good about being a fireman was on display that day.
“Everybody was scared but they went to work anyway.”
Face to face with evil
THE daughter of the only policewoman killed on 9/11 has revealed how she stared into the eyes of the terror attack’s alleged mastermind.
Patricia Smith – two years old when her mum Moira died – flew to Guantanamo Bay for pre-trial hearings of ringleader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other al-Qaeda plotters in 2017 with her dad Jim, 60, also an ex-NYPD cop.
The 22-year-old athletics trainer, who lives in New Orleans, told The Sun on Sunday: “It was difficult. Being there and listening to them speak was something that you are not prepared for.”
Moira, 38, died in the collapse of the South Tower after leading broker Edward Nicholls away so he could be treated for a head wound.
The trial of the five plotters has been held up.