James Martin and two fellow firefighters were backing their hose down a stairwell in rolling smoke too thick to see, the sounds and heat of fire coming at them from the floor above, when he heard the man behind him gasp, "I need air. I'm out of air!"
Over the frantic next moments, Martin tried first to give stricken colleague Joseph P. Graffagnino his own oxygen and then to lead him to safety, Martin told jurors Thursday in the manslaughter trial stemming from the deadly August 2007 blaze at a toxic ground zero tower.
But after Graffagnino flailed, fell and didn't answer his entreaties to follow, Martin realized, "I had to go get help.
"So I made the decision," he said, his voice cracking, "to leave him and go get help."
Martin would manage to do that, at one point thinking he might die himself as he made his way through debris and darkness at the former Deutsche Bank building. But help wouldn't arrive in time for Graffagnino, 33, and fellow firefighter Robert Beddia, 53. They died after being overcome by smoke.
Martin gave jurors a singular and wrenching perspective on the fire that raged through nine floors of the former bank building. Contaminated by toxic debris in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, it was in the process of being cleaned and dismantled.
Three construction company supervisors and a firm involved in the project are on trial. Prosecutors say Salvatore DePaola, Mitchel Alvo and Jeffrey Melofchik knew a crucial firefighting pipe had broken amid work in the basement months before the fatal fire and did nothing to fix the breach.
Melofchik, 49, DePaola, 56, Alvo, 58, and the John Galt Corp., which employed Alvo and DePaola, have pleaded not guilty.
Defense lawyers say the men didn't realize the pipe's significance and are being scapegoated for a disaster that involved many hazards and revealed myriad regulatory failures.
A firefighter for 10 years, six in New York City, Martin had never met Beddia or Graffagnino before Aug. 18, 2007. Normally assigned to a Brooklyn firehouse, Martin was working with their lower Manhattan engine company that day because he'd swapped shifts with a friend, he said.
The smoke was light at first when the three got up to the former bank building's 14th floor by an external elevator, he recalled. The fire started on the 17th, sparked by a worker's careless smoking, prosecutors said.
But the problems quickly became clear as they and other firefighters realized the building's pipe system wasn't supplying any water.
Firefighters eventually ran a hose up the outside of the tower. By the time the hose was ready, the smoke was black and too thick to breathe without an oxygen tank in the stairwell to the 15th floor, where Beddia and Graffagnino and their lieutenant had gone ahead to explore the conditions, Martin said. As mayday calls mounted from around the building, Martin joined them on the stairs.
"We had the only hose line in that building. There weren't any fresh firefighters around. And at the end, we were there by ourselves. At the time, we knew men were in trouble. ... From the water we had in that hose line, the ability exists to make everything better."
A few minutes later, the lieutenant gave a mayday call saying he was lost and running out of air. After realizing he was elsewhere, the three decided to go back down to the 14th floor, Martin said. Crouching and crawling through smoke that seemed like it was "almost boiling," he heard Graffagnino, below him, say he was out of oxygen.
Martin said he detached his own tank and tried to get it to Graffagnino, who had taken off the face mask connected to his oxygen supply. But within seconds, Martin began losing his coordination and feeling dizzy.
Martin reattached his oxygen and got hold of a flailing Graffagnino. But as Martin pulled, Graffagnino pulled back and fell backward away from him, Martin said. Martin's hand landed on a conduit he knew led back to the elevator, and he told Graffagnino, "I know the way out." He got no answer.
At that point, he realized he needed to go get help for both his colleagues.
"Mayday. Mayday. ... Mayday," he gasped on his radio. "There were two members on the 14th floor, out of air ... at the stairwell."
He made his way to the outside elevator landing, vomiting and barely able to breathe as he told firefighters there his two colleagues were missing.
Only after he was taken to a hospital himself did he learn that Graffagnino and Beddia were dead.