The World Trade Towers Collapsed on Will Jimeno. How Did He Survive?
The two men set out on their own search-and-rescue mission, walking on top of the treacherous rubble and calling out.
Below the surface, around 8 p.m., Jimeno heard their call: “United States Marine Corps, can anybody hear us?”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Jimeno recalls. “I started yelling as loud as I could. ‘PAPD Officers down! PAPD officers down!’ And they kept saying, ‘Keep yelling, we hear you!’” The Marines maneuvered toward the sound of Jimeno’s voice and finally appeared, far above, at a hole in the debris. “They said, ‘Who’s down there?’ I said, ‘Port Authority Police, Officer Jimeno, my Sergeant’s down. We have men down here. We have men who have died,’ and they said, ‘Hold on, buddy,’” Jimeno recalls.
The Marines began to try to locate Jimeno in the debris below with a flashlight; all he could do was wave his left hand to attract their attention, but his hand was just as caked in concrete dust as the debris and hard to distinguish from the rubble itself. It took some five minutes for them to find him. Above, the Marines shouted for others to help.
Two officers arrived from the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit Truck One, Scott Strauss and Paddy McGee, both part of the department’s elite rescue and SWAT-style team. “We started running over in that direction,” Strauss recalled later. “We’re climbing over this twisted steel — some were very, very hot — jumping from one to the other. We’re slipping on the dust. It was a very treacherous trek. Through the dust and through the smoke, I saw a guy waving a flashlight, I went over to him. I said, ‘What do you got?’ He goes, ‘You got two guys, two cops down in this hole.’ So I look, and there’s this hole a little bit bigger than the size of a manhole. I dropped down into it, about six to eight feet. It was like a very, very tiny closet.”
Strauss, McGee, and a civilian paramedic, Chuck Sereika, began an arduous, hours-long effort to free Jimeno. They stripped off their own rescue gear, and the officers took off their gun belts, shedding anything they could to make it possible to shimmy deeper into the rubble. “I’m crawling down into this hole. Paddy’s behind me, and we’re going around beams that are hot — fire is coming up from the other side — it’s smoke-filled. We’re coughing. We’re choking,” Strauss recalls.
“I’m saying to myself, to my kids, ‘I love you. I’m sorry I’m doing this, because I’m going to die,’” he recalls. “The worst — probably the worst thing I’ve had to do in my life. I told [my wife] Pat I loved her and I got down in through this hole — I didn’t call anybody on the cell phone, I just said this to myself.”
Finally, after crawling about 20 to 30 feet down, they came upon Pezzullo’s body and, further away, Jimeno. “The only thing we can see of Will is his head, his right arm and part of his right side,” Strauss recalled. “The rest of it — it looks like he was poured out of a dump truck. He’s just laying there, and he’s on his side. He can move his head a little bit and he can move his right hand.”
Only one person could fit through the opening at a time — a space Strauss described as “no bigger than the area underneath a chair.” Strauss offered Jimeno some water, and eventually Sereika hooked up an IV to the injured officer. And then they set to work. Strauss starting scratching at the rubble. Little by little, they chipped away at the enveloping concrete; it was exhausting work and every 15 to 20 minutes, Strauss and Sereika would trade places. As they chipped away, they’d pass the broken concrete to McGee, who would throw it further down into the burning fires and pile of debris beneath them.
The situation was grave. “It looks. At first, they were puzzled as Jimeno kept asking them to save his partner — Strauss and his colleagues could see Peluzzo’s body nearby and worried that Jimeno, in shock, didn’t realize the officer was dead. Only mid-way through the rescue did they hear another voice from the rubble.
“We’re scratching away, scratching away, and then we hear Sergeant McLoughlin’s voice, and he goes, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing?’ I’m like, ‘Who’s that?’ Will’s like, ‘That’s my partner,’ like, You idiots. What do you think I’ve been talking about? So we’re like, ‘We thought he was your partner.’ He said, ‘No, that’s Dominick. He’s dead.’ I’m like, Oh, my God! Now we have another rescue that we have to do.”
For three hours, they worked to free Jimeno, refusing multiple orders from other rescuers to evacuate the site because the debris was too dangerous and unstable. “For the next three hours they worked on me,” Jimeno recalls. “It was very, very painful — they were able to free my right leg, and then it took a long time for them to try to get me from under this wall. They had to cut away my Scott Airpack. It was just a nightmare that night.”
At one point, they considered amputating Jimeno’s leg, but they had only a knife, and instead kept digging. The space was so tight that Jimeno never even saw Strauss’s face — he spent the entire rescue only able to glimpse the officer’s bald head just inches from his own.
“Will’s screaming in pain and Sergeant McLoughlin’s is fading in and out this whole time,” Strauss recalled. “We’re talking to McLoughlin and Paddy McGee — can’t get any more Irish than him, he was born on St. Patrick’s Day, he’s in the police department pipe band — and John McLoughlin, another Irishman, and Paddy’s like, ‘Hey, Irish eyes, are you still with us?’ Sometimes he would answer, sometimes he wouldn’t. When he didn’t answer, Will would get worked up. ‘John — Sarge, come on, Sarge, hold on, Sarge!’ Then you’d hear him in a groggy voice say, ‘I’m here. I’m here.’”
Finally, Jimeno was freed around 11 p.m., hoisted in a rescue basket up to the surface, where he confronted the unimaginable devastation overhead. “As they started pulling me out the gurney, up this hole, I remember looking around, and I said, ‘Where is everything?’ Because I could see the moon, and I could see smoke, but I couldn’t see the buildings. That’s when a firefighter said, ‘It’s all gone, kid.’ That’s the first time I cried that evening.”
It took eight more hours to reach McLoughlin, who finally was freed around 7 a.m. the following morning.
That night, medics took Jimeno to New York’s Bellevue Hospital; the ambulance driver, too, had arrived from upstate and needed directions to find his way. There, Jimeno confronted the emptiness of the emergency room: “I remember as we got to the hospital, I’m thinking there’s going to be thousands of people in there. That’s the second time I cried. As they pulled me off the ambulance, I see these doctors standing around and nurses. I said, ‘Where is everybody?’ They’re like, ‘You’re it.’ They’re telling me there’s nobody else.”
This is where most tellings of Will Jimeno’s story end: the miraculous rescue, some of the last — and only — people pulled from the burning rubble of Ground Zero. The triumph of the hero rescued by other heroes on America’s darkest day.
But what most impresses me about PAPD Officer Will Jimeno is what comes next.