“Yeah, fire department 723 7th Avenue, 12th floor,” a man’s voice with a New York City accent came over the dispatchers intercom. “It’s getting really smoky in here man, I gotta get out of here.”
Across the street on the 10th floor, Ron Perlstein was working on a project for his video production company. He noticed smoke coming from the windows of the 12-story commercial high-rise building in his direct line of sight.
New York City firefighters from Engine 54 and Rescue 1 responded to the dramatic scene where victims were trapped, helplessly waving and calling for help. In order to get to them, the firefighters would have to drop ropes along the outside of the building, secure people to the ropes, and then lower them to the window of another floor for a safe escape. All while dangling 12 stories above the crowded New York City streets.
“When I looked through the viewfinder, the guy was almost outside the ledge on the top floor,” Perlstein later recalled in an interview with Rescue 911. “I felt helpless, I’m 50 feet away and I can’t do anything.” The thick, black smoke billowed from the window and engulfed half of the man’s body. He had only minutes before he would have to make the difficult decision of jumping to his death or being killed in the fire.
Rescue 1’s commander, Patrick “Paddy” Brown, had years on the job and was trained for difficult rescues such as the one on the morning of May 14, 1991. “When we arrived on the scene, you could look up and see the two victims, the one on Seventh Avenue and the one on the 48th Street side,” Brown said.
The tower ladder trucks weren’t tall enough to reach the windows. “They are on their way up, just stay there,” a firefighter warned from his loudspeaker. Time was of the essence, and the firefighters elected to scorch up 13 flights of stairs to the roof because the elevators were being occupied by firefighters trying to put out the flames. The heat and smoke were so intense that one of the trapped victims was standing outside the windowsill to survive.
The scene was desperate, and a large crowd had gathered on the street to witness the heroism of the firefighters. Brown burst through the rooftop door from the stairway as smoke escaped from his breach. “It was like I came onto a baseball field and a couple hundred people were yelling at me,” he said of the citizens on the ground who were shouting and pointing to where the victim was. Brown’s team joined him, and firefighter Patrick “Paddy” Barr wrapped a rope around his waist and dangled his foot over the ledge in hopes the man could see them through the smoke. The man disappeared from the window, but through brief glimpses he reappeared again as he struggled to cling to life.
“Due to construction on this building, there was nothing for Kevin [Shea] to anchor himself on,” Brown said. “Pat O’Keefe and Bruce Newberry laid on top of Kevin.” They used their bodies as human anchors to control the descent. Barr was lowered to the window, and the man fell into his arms as the crowd erupted into whistles and cheers. Firefighters on the floors below broke out the windows and pulled them into the building. Before he vanished inside, Barr turned around and waved to the crowd.
“We were happy for two seconds, and then you knew you had to get right back to work,” Newberry said, “because there was another man on the 48th Street side.”
One victim had been rescued, but the same rope, which was already frayed, was needed to rescue the other man. In nothing more than a FDNY T-shirt, Shea took firefighter Barr’s position as a roofman and hooked himself into the rope to repeat the process a second time. The extreme conditions and technical aspect of the rescue required speed, and they quickly adapted to the challenge. Shea reached the second man and bear hugged him as he wrapped his feet around Shea’s body. They death-gripped each other until they were lowered to another floor where the firefighters dragged them through another window.
The two victims were sent to the hospital for smoke inhalation, and the more than 100 firefighters fought the blaze for another hour before it extinguished. They returned to their fire trucks and were met by smiling faces. News reporters asked whether or not they believed they were heroes.
“It was a tremendous team effort,” Barr said. “I was the guy to go over on the rope, but there would have been a hundred guys to grab that rope out of my hand to go over.”
This dynamic situation was one of the most difficult and unique rescues in the history of the FDNY. Two years later, Kevin Shea was severely injured during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and forced to retire five years later. Captain Paddy Brown, a U.S. Marine Corps and Vietnam veteran, was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the North Tower collapsed with him and other members of Ladder 3 still inside.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.