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Window Washers Say Training Saved Lives When Scaffold Tilted Outside WTC

By Sybile Penhirin | November 14, 2014 2:34pm | Updated on November 17, 2014 7:54am
 The two window washers said they were happy to be alive and ready to go back to work tomorrow if needed.
Window Cleaners Say Good Training and Rescue Teams Saved Their Lives
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FLATIRON DISTRICT — Despite months of training, Juan Lopez said he panicked when the window-washing scaffold 800 feet above ground, along the side of One World Trade Center suddenly tilted 45 degrees.

“At first it was pretty much survival mode,” said Lopez, 33, one of the two window washers left dangling outside the 68th floor of the iconic building for more than an hour Wednesday.

“I grabbed on, I held on and hoped I didn't fall over,” Lopez, from the Bronx, said at a press conference held at his union 32BJ's headquarters on Friday morning.

“It all started as a normal day,” his co-worker Juan Lizama, 41, said in Spanish. The window washers first checked their equipment and made sure everything was tethered, they said.

“I know the job,” said Lizama, who has cleaned windows for 24 years.

“One mistake, no story here, that’s why safety is number one,” he said. “Safety for us and for the people below us."

The two co-workers, who had worked on the site before, started working on the 43rd floor early on Wednesday morning and worked their way up the 1,776-foot tower.

It’s still unclear what caused the scaffold to suddenly tilt. Lopez said the emergency brake — which stops the scaffold from sliding — did not work. Officials said a slack developed on the west side of the scaffolding causing it to divert, but they said the investigation was ongoing.

While Lopez, who's been a window washer for five years, admitted he panicked, Lizama said his training helped him remain calm.

“We were always in control of the situation,” said Lizama, who was born in El Salvador,  before adding that both men had been trained for that type of incident.

As 32BJ members, Lizama and Lopez have both been through 18 months of training, totaling approximately 800 hours of preparation, a union spokeswoman said.

Once Lizama made sure both men were secured by their security harnesses, he took his cellphone outside of his pocket and called his wife, he said.

“I said, 'Something happened, if you see it on the news, I tell you I’m okay,'” he said.

The two men then waited approximately an hour-and-a-half for firefighters to rescue them, they said. The FDNY first went to the roof from where they dropped a security rope and a radio.

Lopez and Lizama said they did not really talk while they were hanging hundreds of feet above the ground, waiting to be rescued.

“Our conversation was mostly with the guy on the [radio] to make sure we were still stable,” Lopez recalled.

“Oh thanks God,” Lopez remembered thinking when the fire fighters eventually broke a three-layer window and brought the two workers in.

"I’m just happy to be alive," the father of four said. 

Lizama, who lives in New Jersey, and Lopez have been on paid leave since Wednesday, but they both said they were ready to go back to work.

“Yes I’ll continue to wash windows but there are a lot of ground floor jobs [as a window washer],” Lopez said. Lizama said he was ready to go back to work on One World Trade Center tomorrow if needed.

“They’ll be back at work on Monday,” said John McDermott, the CEO of Upgrade Services who hired both Lizama and Lopez about three years ago.