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Local heroes

Aftermath World Trade Center Archive Joel Meyerowitz Phaidon: 350 pp., $75

September 10, 2006|Jimmy Breslin | Jimmy Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1986. He is the author, most recently, of "Love Lasts on Myrtle Avenue," a play.

I look at the broken silver teeth and the spilled insides of the World Trade Center in Joel Meyerowitz's breathtaking book of photographs, "Aftermath," and I see Tim Janis, who was there.

I met him in the smoke. I want to tell you about him, even now, five years later, because he had a thin body and a giant heart and he hasn't talked to anybody about this day because he comes another way. He is a legitimate hero and we have very few of them at any time.

When it started, when this necklace of small flames was in a neat line around the top of Tower Two, I was walking down Vesey Street, which sloped down to the fire engines and the fear around the building.

Then it went. The sound of a hundred subway trains shattered the sky and the building disappeared into smoke.

"Run."

"Run. Run."

"Run."

They called out in shouts and wails and anybody on the block ran through the night made by smoke.

The smoke consisted of computer insides, human bones, desks, paper, glass, ceilings, floors.

The sound of parts of the building hitting the street was of gunfire chasing you. I got around the corner and flattened against a wall or a doorway, an alcove. Something. A firefighter was standing there covered with the needles that were in the smoke.

He said, "I have a daughter in college in Baltimore. And I love her."

That was all. That was a full religion in one sentence. High above us, those in their last moments in Tower One, the north tower, sent their words into the sky in cellphones.

"I love you," they said to wives.

"I love you," they told children.

"I love you," they said to family.

"I love you," they said to anybody who heard.

Then, another shaking roar of subways and that building disappeared into night blackness.

Tim Janis was covered with smoke that stuck to him. His eyes were red and his face black.

"I'm a doorman at the Plaza Hotel," he said. "I work the Central Park South door. We had the radio on and Howard Stern said anybody listening ought to go down to the World Trade Center and see if you could give a hand. I'm a Howard Stern man, so I did."

He went from the Plaza and met his friend, Lenny, at the Subway Inn, a bar on 60th Street that is a base for all-night hotel workers.

They had several cold beers and walked over to the 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue, where workers were told to report.

"They asked us, 'Who are you?' and we said, 'Iron workers,' and they said, 'Great,' and sent us onto the drill floor where Local 40 of the iron workers were gathered," he said.

They were given boots and hard hats and got on a bus that took them through roadblocks and lines of soldiers and let them out yards away from the heat and carnage of the site.

Tim Janis had never done anything like this. He was a doorman who picked up suitcases for men coming in from Colorado and whistled for taxis and tipped his hat to women. He never imagined he would one day walk into fire and smoking steel and the insides of 110-story buildings that were spilled everywhere. But go into these flames and wreckage, Tim Janis did.

When he looked down he saw, far below, Hell. Flames many stories down and melting steel.

"Grab that line!" somebody called.

Now Tim saw the iron workers burning steel with acetylene torches. A hose snaked atop smoldering steel.

"Grab that line."

Tim was afraid. There was fire under his feet. Above was metal that could shift and crush him. But he reached out and grabbed the line and brought it over to the workers who had the torches going.

And then he tried. Through a long day he tried to work with these iron workers. They, and the operating engineers who ran the cranes and drove the tractors, were the ones who slowly, steadily, extinguished the fires and started getting the place cleaned up so, someday, you could have it clear enough to plan.

Tim Janis tried, tried, tried, and he was just plain afraid and not as strong as these workers. Still, he would not quit. Terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and had killed nearly 3,000. He was there to help.

Finally, he told the guy running the job that he was getting in the way and might get somebody hurt. The guy gave him a clap on the back and said thanks. Tim Janis walked out of the fire and went down to a kitchen where they were making hamburgers for the workers. He manned the griddle and worked until his hands could no longer move. Then he went off to the subway. He did not know how long he had been at the World Trade Center. A couple of days? Whatever. He had stood up for his people. Which is the expected behavior from an aristocrat of his city.

This book of chilling photos by Joel Meyerowitz, one after the other, performing a duty to record for all to come, also is a royal work. *

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