When September 11 happened, I thought of the window cleaners of the World Trade Center. I'd read about them, I knew they were a heroic bunch because of the sheer challenge of the job. So they were on my mind.
When I was tasked with the job of building a collection, however, I went to one window cleaner in particular who I had read about: Jan Demczur, of Jersey City, a man who did a really big thing on September 11. He used his window-cleaning squeegee to cut his way out of an elevator on the 50th floor of the World Trade Center after it had jammed and stopped.
He was with five other men. They crawled through the hole he had made with this squeegee handle and escaped from the building just minutes before it came down.
I called Jan in December--after some difficulties, I found him in Jersey City--met with him and asked him the big question: Did you hang onto the handle, do you still have that squeegee handle? He left the room and came back with something wrapped in a red handkerchief. Turned out to be the handle. He had kept the handle without realizing it. In his blind escape, he had somehow stuffed it in his pocket rather than put it in the bucket that he dropped later. His wife found it, rolled up in his dirty uniform, weeks later.
He has donated that squeegee handle to us, that squeegee handle in a supreme act of generosity, together with his dirty uniform and the shoes he was wearing that day.