A Vaudevillian 9-11 Story

Originally published in 2011

There actually is one (a 9-11 story with a vaudeville angle, that is).

When I came across the story (stories, actually) of William Rodriguez while researching a theatre piece I am writing about the event, I filed the information away, mostly in hopes of booking him one day. But now that I see that he commands speaker fees of between four and five figures an appearance, I concede that he is a little out of my price range. But I can present him here for free!

Mr. Rodriguez was a former assistant to the Amazing Randi, and an aspiring magician himself, who happened to be employed as a janitor in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. According to Mr. Rodriguez, his normal routine was to have breakfast at Windows on the World (courtesy some friends who worked there) but he’d gotten in late that morning and so went straight to the maintenance office to start his day. If he’d stuck to his normal routine, he’d have been trapped with the hundreds above the impact zone, none of whom made it out alive that day.

His account, like those of thousands of others in the building, is harrowing enough. He tells of the fireball in the basement (it had exploded down the length of the building through the elevator shaft) and of encountering a man whose skin had been burned off. From here, Mr. Rodriguez went on to help the rescue workers — his keys gave him access to all parts of the building.  There are some inconsistencies in his accounts of what happened that day, and there is very little corroboration for a lot of what he says. And, well, like all performers, he appears to like attention. But this remains incontrovertible, unassailable: Mr. Rodriguez, directly or indirectly, helped saved a LOT of lives that day; he stayed behind; and he was one of the very last people to make it out of the North Tower before it collapsed. (The phrase “Last Man Out” has been applied to him; there has been some difference about that).

In the years since, he has been an advocate for the largely undocumented Hispanic workers from the WTC, helping them get compensation and benefits.  And he continues to tell his story around the world, and people pay big money to listen.  Given all that he has gone through (including joblessness and homelessness in the immediate months after the disaster), I begrudge him nothing: money, attention, none of it. If I had 15 Gs to pay him, I’d book him in a heartbeat.

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