English Feature #7-36169 Broadcast April 15, 2002
On September 11, 2002 the National Museum of American History in Washington will open an exhibit of artifacts connected with last year’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Among these artifacts will be a squeegee – a simple tool used by window washers to scrape water off glass. Today on New American Voices we introduce you to the immigrant from Poland who used that squeegee to save the lives of six people caught in an elevator on the 50th floor of the burning North Tower of the World Trade Center.
September 11, 2001 began just like any other day for World Trade Center North Tower window washer John Demczur. He began work at six in the morning. At eight he took a coffee break, and after breakfast went to the 44th floor to take an express elevator to the 74th floor, where he planned to start washing the inside windows.
“I stepped into the elevator. I had my tools with me -– bucket, water, some rags, squeegee. When I stepped into the elevator there were five men inside the elevator. The door closed normally and we went up, and in a few minutes the elevator was going down, it was shaking from side to side, banging. And I said, 'Something’s wrong!'"
The elevator stopped, smoke started coming in, but the men inside had no way of knowing what the problem was. Prying open the elevator door they saw a blank wall with a big number 50 painted on it. The men tried kicking the wall, but this proved fruitless. John Demczur, who had previously worked in construction, saw that it was drywall, and knew that it could be cut or broken with a sharp object.
“I was asking for a knife, but nobody had anything. Then I looked into my bucket and I said, ‘Well, let me use my squeegee’. How I have this idea… Just instinct, do something, try to do something.”
The squeegee is a thin hard rubber blade set on a 15-centimeter metal handle, which in turn fits onto a wooden broomstick. The men used the broomstick to jam the doors open, and took turns scratching at the wall with the squeegee.
“We don’t know how dangerous the situation is, and we don’t panic, we just start doing something. The only focus was on this wall. We make a little hole, just find out the thickness is three inches, and I say, well, this is going to be a lot of work.”
It took the men a long 45 minutes to cut a hole in the 8-centimeter-thick wall large enough for them to get through. On the other side were tiles. They kicked in the tiles, and one by one squirmed through the hole into what turned out to be a bathroom on the 50th floor. Nobody was there except firefighters, who hustled the men into the smoke-filled staircase and down 50 flights of stairs. John Demczur says that only minutes after they got out of the building, it collapsed.
“I still doesn’t know anything about why this happened, who did this, I’m looking for another building and I don’t see this building. My brain stopped working. After that I just wanted to be with my family, with my children and wife, my head was just focused – be with the family.”
Mr. Demczur says he put the squeegee in his pocket and forgot about it. Some time later, his wife found it on the floor of a closet along with his dirty window washer’s uniform. The Smithsonian Institution, which runs the National Museum of American History, became interested in it when Mr. Demczur’s story appeared in media reports about survivors of the World Trade Center disaster. A museum curator visited Mr. Demczur in his home in Jersey City, and talked him into parting with the squeegee.
“He described me about Smithsonian Museum, and he said, ‘You know this is very interesting, that handle is supposed to have a special place for it, because it saved six lives.’”
Earlier this month, John Demczur was honored at a Smithsonian Institution ceremony, at which he officially gave the squeegee to the museum, where it will become an artifact of American history.
John Demczur immigrated to the United States 20 years ago, when he was 27, from Poland, where his Ukrainian family lived. After finishing high school he became a plumber, and worked in construction, putting plumbing into new houses. When he first arrived in the United States, he found work as a plumber but ten years ago switched to window washing. He says he has been able to create a good life for himself and his wife and two children.
“We both together working, we have a house, living in Poland I could never have a house, here any kind job you do – I window cleaner – make not bad money, children teenagers, they go to school, I think I stay here because better future is – maybe not for me, but for our children is better future here.”
John Demczur says his life has changed since September 11th. He still suffers from headaches and sleeplessness, and is still not working. But he has been honored as a hero by the window washers’ union, and his story has been reported in newspapers as far away as Bahrain, Austria, Poland, Ukraine. He seems to be somewhat dazed by all the attention.
“As if I did something big. I just saved myself, and the other people who were with me in the elevator also helped me do the hole in the wall, and we escaped together. I think I’m a little hero, but the real heroes are the people who lost their lives in the World Trade Center.”
Nevertheless, the simple squeegee on display at the museum of American History will remind visitors for years to come of the window washer who saved six lives. Next week on New American Voices we’ll introduce you to a Tibetan lumberjack turned Voice of America broadcaster.