When the scaffolding suspending window washers Juan Lopez and Juan Lizama outside the 68th floor of 1 World Trade Center began slipping, Lopez followed the procedures he remembered: He hit the emergency brake. But it didn’t work.
He recounted the moment to a room of reporters gathered at the 32BJ SEIU union headquarters on Friday.
“At the moment that we realized one side was tilting and the other one wasn’t, once the panic came in, my instinct was survival. First instinct: emergency stop. That didn’t work. For whatever reason,” Lopez explained.
The scaffold, which had started the day on the 43rd floor and risen slowly to the 68th, lurched upward, further destabilizing it. “I just grab on, hold on, and hope we wasn’t gonna fall over. Once it came to a stop — we actually got just a little higher. It kept going up — but, once that [stop] happened, it was relief, and calmness.”
Lopez and Lizama spent a full 90 minutes dangling from the lopsided rig on Wednesday afternoon, before the FDNY, with the help of the NYPD and Port Authority police, rescued the men by slicing through two layers of glass to create a four-foot-by-eight-foot hole to pull them back through.
A 32BJ SEIU representative who was moderating the press conference on Friday refused to allow Lopez to answer any follow-up questions about the emergency brake’s failure. It was previously reported that the cables that supported the scaffold were not operating in unison, creating slack in the cables on one side and causing that side to slip downward at a precarious angle.
Instead of the equipment malfunction, the union representatives facilitating the press conference wanted to focus on the crucial safety precautions Lopez and Lizama followed that saved their lives.
32BJ SEIU President Héctor Figueroa laid the groundwork in his opening remarks: “We wanted to use this opportunity, as we should, to remind the public, elected officials, building managers, operating companies of how important it is to train workers to put safety on the job first and to follow the regulations we have in place.”
John McDermott, the president of Upgrade Service, which employs the men, struck a similar note. The fact that not a single item fell of the rig, McDermott said, “is a result of not only their training but their diligence and professionalism.”
“Even in this case of equipment malfunction, their diligence saved the day. They were not in danger of falling because they were tethered to the scaffold, all their equipment was tethered to the scaffold.”
For all those assurances that they were perfectly safe while they dangled 68 floors above the ground, at least one of the men still seemed reticent to return to work. Lizama said if he were asked to return to 1 World Trade Center, he would — “tomorrow.” Lopez? Not so much. “There are a lot of ground-floor jobs” with the company, he said, “and I will probably do that.”