A dramatic rescue by the FDNY saved two window washers trapped for about 90 minutes outside 1 World Trade Center Wednesday as winds buffeted a malfunctioning rig dangling precariously some 700 feet above the street.
Firefighters used a special diamond-toothed circular saw to cut a door-sized hole through two layers of glass and one of protective material so the workers could be gingerly pulled off the rocking rig to safety, officials said. Hundreds of tourists, construction and office workers watched the chain of events in awe from the ground and neighboring buildings.
"That is almost like getting off a boat, 68 stories up," said FDNY Lt. William Ryan of Rescue One, who was on the 68th floor and communicated to the men by using hand signals.
The window-washing rig was tilted into an almost vertical angle, with one worker at each end of the platform as it swayed outside the 68th and 69th floors, officials said.
The men were identified as Juan Lizama, 41, of New Jersey, and Juan Lopez, 33, of the Bronx.
Some shards of glass fell to the ground as the special saw cut through the window panes, but Ryan said most of the glass remained inside the building.
The high-wire drama outside the nation's tallest building began about 12:42 p.m. when fire officials said they received a 911 call. Once at the building, firefighters sent down 600 feet of special rope like that used for rock climbing, so the window washers could secure themselves to it with mountaineering carabiners. Lizama and Lopez had been linked to the rigging by safety harnesses, but if the platform had fallen they would have plummeted to their deaths.
Even at 600 feet in length, the rope was just enough to reach the men, with just 15 feet to spare on a building which, with its antenna, is 1,776 feet high. The rope also had attached to it a two-way radio, which the two men could use to communicate with FDNY units on the roof of the 104-story building. There, FDNY Capt. Brian Smith of Long Island was posted with units of Squad 18.
After they were pulled inside about 2:15 p.m., Lizama and Lopez thanked Ryan and the other rescuers before EMS personnel took them away on back boards.
Both men, while dressed in sturdy work clothes and boots, suffered mild hypothermia, officials said. They were treated and released from Bellevue Hospital Center, Ryan said.
Felix Roque, the mayor of West New York, New Jersey, stopped by Lizama's home Wednesday night to say hello to him and offer the family support. Lizama's son Kevin sat outside and said his father was not home.
"You're going to be alright. You're going to be okay. It's hard on you, I understand," Roque told Kevin.
The young man declined to comment to reporters.
FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said his department and Port Authority units have prepared for high-level rescues.
"They trained for this activity so they are more than ready to operate here," Nigro said about the World Trade Center, which was opened last week to its first tenants, nearly 200 workers for publisher Condé Nast.
In a statement, officials at the Port Authority, which owns the building, said the window-washing rig provided by Tractel was installed in August 2013 and had been in service since June.
The Port Authority said there had been no problems at 1 World Trade Center with the equipment and that it had been last inspected by state and local officials June 11.
Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, said a full investigation was under way and that all building-maintenance units would be shut down as a precaution until the probe is completed.
Officials at Tractel didn't return a call for comment.
John McDermott, president of the men's employer, Upgrade Services, thanked the first responders "for their swift response and professional rescue" and said the window washers "remained calm and awaited rescue in an extremely tense and precarious situation."
He said it appeared the crisis was caused by failure of the traction hoist brake mechanism that supports one side of the rig.
"This caused the scaffold to drift into an almost vertical position, leaving our men stranded until a rescue could be performed," he said.
The men are members of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents 70,000 building-service workers, including about 600 window cleaners in New York City. Union president Héctor Figueroa thanked firefighters and said he was "happy and relieved that our members . . . are safe and will be going home to their families tonight."
At ground level, authorities evacuated hundreds of people from the reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial plaza about 1:45 p.m. because of the possibility of debris falling from above.
UPS worker Edwin Marrero, 27, of the Bronx, was one of hundreds staring up at the dangling rig watching the drama unfold. "It's incredible, but scary. I feel for these guys. Anything can happen right now. I'm glued."
In Brookfield Place across from the tower, tourists and office workers couldn't stop watching.
"I hope those guys are strapped in good," said one Brooklyn man who had been in his parked car on West Street and saw the men from above. He didn't want to give his name. "I was checking out my new sunroof when I just looked up through the roof and saw the scaffold hanging. Those guys are dangling up there. I couldn't believe my eyes."
The scaffold was returned to a horizontal position about 4 p.m.
Nigro, the fire commissioner, praised his team. "The firefighters made a difficult operation simple. They are the best."
With Darran Simon, Maria Alvarez and Ivan Pereira