Roko Camaj spent nearly half of his life suspended from ropes over 1,300 feet above ground working outside of the original World Trade Center. Born in the small Balkan country of Montenegro, he immigrated to the United States in 1969 and began working at the WTC as a window washer with ABM Industries in 1973. Today, a white rose placed in his name on the bronze parapets at the 9/11 Memorial marks what would have been his 75th birthday.
Most of the 43,600 windows of the WTC were cleaned using a custom-built device that crawled up and down each tower, according to the book "City in the Sky." But because the windows on the upper floors of the South Tower were made from wider panes of glass to provide expansive views from the observation deck, they needed to be washed by hand. That was Camaj's job, and he loved it.
“It’s just me and the sky. I don’t bother anybody and nobody bothers me,” Camaj said, according to a children’s book written about him called "Risky Business."
According to the New York Times, his wife, Katrina, had thought he only washed the window interiors until she read a newspaper account detailing his job. The article noted that his wife was "so unnerved by heights that, after one visit to the observation deck, she will not go near the place." He tried to change her mind, explaining he was safe in his harness and basket tethered to the skyscrapers.
He was a father of three grown children. When he wasn’t at work, Camaj was home with his wife in Manhasset, Long Island.
On the morning of Sept. 11, he called Katrina at 9:15 a.m. from the 105th floor of the South Tower where he was trapped with at least 200 other people. He also spoke to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey operations desk via his walkie-talkie. Despite his nearly 30 years of inside knowledge of the towers, unfortunately, it was not enough to save him that morning. Camaj was killed when the tower collapsed.
By Jenny Pachucki, 9/11 Memorial Content Strategist