A group of New York firefighters have always credited Josephine Harris with saving their lives during the World Trade Center collapse. Nine years later they would return the favor, as a final salute.
A bookkeeper for the Port Authority, Harris was making her way down stairway B from the 73rd floor in the second tower and was near exhaustion at the 15th floor where Ladder Co. 6 firefighters encountered her on their descent. They slowly coaxed her down ten more floors, knowing the building was on the verge of collapse. With sore legs, she finally refused to go on, but the firefighters refused to leave her.
Within minutes, the building did collapsed around them, but in that particular location, between the fourth and first floors, the walls peeled around them “like a banana,” allowing them to survive.
When, weeks later, Ms. Harris reunited with the firefighters at their Canal Street station, they gave her a jacket embroidered with the words “Guardian Angel”.
In January this year, Josephine died following several years of unemployment, poverty, and bankruptcy. Her body went unclaimed for days in the morgue.
When the story was published in a New York paper, Good Samaritan Peter DeLuca, who runs a funeral home in the East Village, offered to cover the entire cost of a funeral, $13,000, to honor Josephine, because she was credited with saving the lives of six firefighters from Ladder 6. (The stairway also sheltered 8 other surviving firemen who had gone back into the building to help their “brothers”.)
Fire chiefs who heard about DeLuca’s gesture arranged to turn it into a full fire department funeral. “She got an honor guard, the fire truck, the whole thing,” recalled one firefighter. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani also attended.
“The cloth interior of her blue steel coffin was custom-embroidered with the image of a firefighter in full gear, walking hand in hand with an angel,” reported the New York Times. “Her prayer cards will display her smiling face on one side and the words of the Fireman’s Prayer on the other.”
“You cannot say that something that happened to you is a miracle,” Chief Jonas said in another NY Times article about the funeral. “But we had the courage to do what we did, and you can say that if she was not there for us to save her, we probably would not have made it.”
The story of her rescue from the World Trade Center ten years ago was the subject of a History Channel documentary in 2006, “The Miracle of Stairway B.”