Then a captain with Fire Ladder Company 6 in the Chinatown section of lower Manhattan, Jay Jonas tells a harrowing story of rescue and survival at the collapse of the World Trade Center after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001.
"Some days it seems like it was yesterday. Some days it feels like it was 20 years ago," said Jonas, who is still with the New York Fire Department and serves currently as a deputy chief.
"Staying on is my coping mechanism," the 63-year-old told Reuters during a recent interview at a fire station in the Bronx ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
"There was tremendous trepidation and fear going into our operations that day, but we did it," Jonas remembered.
In the North Tower lobby with colleagues shortly after it was hit, Jonas recalls the moment the plane hit the South Tower.
"Now, you had one of the firemen from Rescue One look up and say 'we may not live through today.' And we thought about it and we acknowledged his statement, and we took the time to shake each other's hands and wish each other good luck," he said.
"Out of all those guys I was surrounded by when the second plane hit the South Tower, I'm the only one that lived."
Jonas was ordered to do search and rescue in the North Tower. He recalls the building beginning to vibrate as the collapse drew nearer.
"The collapse was compressing all the air that was in the building, so it created tornado-like winds in the stairway," he said.
"We're getting hit with debris as the building's coming down and you also you have this eerie sound of twisting steel all around us.
"You know, I looked up, I could see a little sliver of blue sky and I said, 'guys, there used to be 106 floors over our heads. Now I see a sliver of blue sky."
Jonas and his team were able to find their way out of the rubble.
After a short leave, he returned to the job and was promoted to battalion chief.
His first big fire back, he recalled, was in a high rise in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn.
"I had some butterflies in my stomach," he remembers feeling. "We got there, the guys did a terrific job, they put the fire out, nobody was killed, nobody was hurt. And all of a sudden I just came to the realization, 'This is going to be OK.'"
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