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CBS2 Exclusive: Window Washer Talks About Experience In 1 WTC Scaffold Mishap

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- One of the window washers who was aboard a scaffold that collapsed at One World Trade Center said he overcame his fear by putting his training into action.

As investigators continued to probe the Wednesday incident that left two window washers dangling 68 stories above the street, window washer Juan Lopez told his story exclusively to CBS2's Sonia Rincon.

As CBS2's Jessica Schneider reported, the workers were trapped when a cable suddenly developed slack around 12:45 p.m. Wednesday.

The window washers, Juan Lizama, 41, of West New York, New Jersey; and Juan Lopez, 43, of the Bronx, were working on the south side of the building when one of the platform's four cables abruptly gave way, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

PHOTOS: Window Washers Rescued At 1 WTC

Before a cable came loose and the scaffold slumped to one side, Lopez said everything was fine – and exactly as it should have been.

We made sure the scaffold was intact before we jumped in, as we do every day," Lopez said. "At the moment when it happened, it was just reaction."

So when the accident happened -- and Lopez and his partner, Juan Lizama, found themselves dangling precariously – he said there were a few minutes where they were truly scared. But their training kicked in.

"My first reaction is, of course, to hit all the emergency brakes -- which is what we were trained for," Lopez said. "It's just instinct, you know -- survival."

Lopez said once the scaffold stopped moving, he and Lizama knew it was just a matter of time before they would be rescued. Either another scaffold would be lowered, or the window would be cut.

"It calms you down after a while," Lopez said. "Once you realize you're steady, you know, you take a breath and realize -- you know, you put everything together, all the safety that you learned. You realize that, you know, everything is good."

And everything was good, Lopez said, when he saw his bosses from contractor Upgrade Services and the first responders.

"I can't explain the relief that I felt – you know, just seeing their face. It was amazing," he said. "Like I said, I can't thank them enough -- the FDNY, the police, everyone that came in and helped us out."

Lopez said when the accident happened, the first thing he thought of was his family.

"My wife, my kids, my mother, my father -- and that gives you nothing but strength, you know, to hold on, and make sure the impossible will be possible," he said.

He has four little girls -- including 6-month-old twins – who are too young to understand what happened. But his wife knew.

"I'm just glad I wasn't there to see their reaction with them when I was in there, because what I heard was everyone crying – something I can't bear with," Lopez said. "Just the thought of them gets me emotional."

Upgrade president and chief executive officer John McDermott was a high-rise window washer once himself. He said Lopez and Lizama did everything right.

"As you saw, the scaffold was virtually vertical, and nothing fell from the scaffold," McDermott said. "So they not only protected themselves, they protected the pedestrians below by taking the proper procedures."

McDermott said it was Lopez and Lizama's bravery, and their training, that kept them calm.

"It takes a special breed to be a window cleaner," McDermott said. "But if you understand the technology, you know that even though they had a slack rope situation because of the equipment malfunction on one side, any one of the four cables on that system can hold four times the weight of the rig."

Lopez said he is not sure if his partner made a phone call. But he didn't dare take his phone out for fear he might drop it.

"My phone kept ringing and ringing, and I just decided to listen to my ringtone, as it rang. It calmed me down as well, you know?" he said.

Lopez said his phone was ringing because people were well aware of what was happening.

"Oh yeah -- family, everyone," he said.

In fact, Lopez's family was worried sick that he could be one of the men that had captivated the city's attention.

CBS2 also tried to speak with Lizama. He was not home.

Lopez said he is grateful to have Lizama as a partner, and he can't remember much about what they said when they were there.

"From time to time: 'Are you ok? How's everything?,' you know, make sure," Lopez said. "Once the fire lines and everything come in… we had to, one thing, not panic."

Lizama has 14 years on the job. Lopez has five.

"Oh I love it. I definitely do. It's a wonderful line of business," he said. "As scary as it -- I would recommend it for anybody, as crazy as it sounds."

Lizama and Lopez were examined at a hospital and were released. Lopez said he is mentally preparing himself to get back to work after a few days off.

"I'm definitely looking forward to going back to work -- just a matter of time," he said.

The firm for which they work, Upgrade Services, is also contracted to other prominent New York skyscrapers including the nearby 4 World Trade Center.

Window cleaners earn a starting wage of about $26 an hour.

Investigation Into Incident Continues

Lizama and Lopez were trapped when a cable suddenly developed slack around 12:45 p.m. Wednesday. They were working on the south side of the building when one of the platform's four cables abruptly gave way, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

PHOTOS: Window Washers Rescued At 1 WTC

"It suddenly went from horizontal to nearly vertical,'' Nigro said.

Images from the scene showed the scaffolding dangling at a precarious angle as emergency responders tried to rescue the workers and secure the dangling scaffold platform.

Additional safety lines were lowered to the workers along with a radio so they could communicate with the rescue team.

"At no time were the people in the scaffold unsecured. They were secured both by their own belts and the ropes by the roof," Nigro said.

A rescue basket with one officer each from the NYPD and the Port Authority was deployed in an effort to get to the trapped workers, but the FDNY managed to cut through a window and pull them to safety around 2:15 p.m.

Fire Chief Describes One WTC Scaffold Rescue

"That operation was as good an operation as we've had," FDNY Chief of Operations John Sudnik told WCBS 880's Peter Haskell.

Sudnik said the biggest issue was not the height of the building. It was cutting through the window.

He said the glass is a special type of glass that is a couple of panes thicker than regular high-rise glass.

It took firefighters 30 minutes using a diamond-tipped aw to cut through the triple-paned glass. But Sudnik described it all as business as usual.

"The tactics are the same, the communications are the same, the command structure is the same, the response is the same," he said.

He said the process for a rescue on a 104-story building is not radically different from the process at any building over seven stories.

The company that supplied the scaffold is the Tractel Group.

In June 2013, Tractel was involved in a scaffold collapse at the Hearst Tower, in which two workers were rescued 45 stories above Midtown.

In December 2007, one man died and another was seriously injured when their scaffold fell 47 stories on East 66th Street.

Tractel was fined $21,000 for improper rope installation.

The Port Authority said it was suspending window cleaning there while investigating what happened.

Officials haven't determined what caused the cable problem, the fire commissioner said.

It was unclear whether anything about the design of the 1,776-foot, 104-story skyscraper complicates working on the window washing scaffolds, which went into service in June.

One World Trade Center is America's tallest building and stands at the northwest corner of the site where the twin towers were destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The $3.9 billion skyscraper opened for business last week with more than 170 Conde Nast employees moving into five of the company's 25 floors.

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