Necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes, the military translates this axiom as “if it’s stupid and it works, it isn’t stupid.” So while the idea of this simple squeegee handle saving lives sounds silly, there are six people who sure are glad to be window washers that day.
As if being a window washer on a New York City skyscraper wasn’t harrowing enough, the sheer terror didn’t stop for these six men that day, even though they were in the building. Polish immigrant Jan Demczur and five others were in an elevator in the North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001, when the building was struck by American Airline Flight 11.
The cleaners were on their way up to work when the elevator suddenly started plummeting down to earth.
Victoria Dawson, in her July 2002 article in Smithsonian magazine “Handed Down to History,” wrote that Demczur or one of the other men managed to press the emergency stop button on the elevator. But stopping their sudden descent was only half of the problem – they still needed to get out.
“We felt a muted thud,” said Shivam Iyer, one of the other workers. “The building shook. The elevator swung from side to side, like a pendulum.”
When they finally forced open the elevator’s doors, they were faced with walls of sheetrock and smoke started to fill the elevator shaft. A voice warned them of an explosion in the building. They were on the 50th floor and the express elevator they were on didn’t stop there. It was lucky that someone had a pocketknife and the men were able to start cutting through the wall. Then, Demczur dropped the knife down the elevator shaft.
“I was very upset with myself,” he told Smithsonian. “We had a problem and now a bigger problem.”
There was no time to think. One of his coworkers simply grabbed up the squeegee from their work bucket and resumed working on that wall. The men took turns going to town on the wall with the squeegee handle. Eventually, they punched through four layers of sheetrock, finally punching into a tile wall under the sink of a men’s room. They escaped from the building – via a stairwell – as soon as they could. It took them 90 minutes.
Moments after leaving the building, it collapsed.
Demczur donated the squeegee handle to the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where it was on display until loaned to the Smithsonian. A coat of the white debris is still on the handle.