On the morning of Sept. 11 2001, Dianne DeFontes had just settled into her workspace on the 89th floor of the North Tower when an explosion threw her from her chair. With no way of knowing that the blast was part of terror attack, DeFontes and her coworkers gathered as the smell of jet fuel and smoke filled the office. They discovered that all entrances to the emergency stairwells were damaged in the attack and they were trapped.
As desperation was setting in, recalled DeFontes in a 2009 interview with a 9/11 Memorial Museum oral historian, a man in a yellow hardhat and flashlight burst through a jammed door with a crowbar and told the group, “We have to go, now!”
The man was Pablo Ortiz, a former U.S. Navy Seal who worked as a construction superintendent with the Port Authority. After he and three colleagues, including Francis “Frank” De Martini, felt the explosion from one floor below, they grabbed tools and headed up the stairs. Their mission was to free those who were trapped by removing impediments such as jammed doors and fallen debris.
Ortiz led the charge on the 89th floor, guiding the group to a different exit and prying open a buckled doorframe that blocked that exit. Once the group was safely on their way down the stairs, Ortiz left them and continued on to help others.
Pablo’s wife, Edna Ortiz, told a museum oral historian that she was communicating with her husband that morning via pager. At 10:28 a.m. her last page to him remained unanswered. At this moment she said she turned to her television and watched her husband’s building crumble before her eyes.
Altogether, Ortiz, De Martini, Pete Negron, and Carlos da Costa helped at least 50 trapped people by acting as citizen first-responders, New York Times reporters Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn estimated in their 2011 book 102 Minutes. Today a white rose on the 9/11 Memorial marks what would have been Ortiz’s 65th birthday and honors a man who gave his life so that others could live.
By Jenny Pachucki, 9/11 Memorial Content Strategist