Buried Alive: 10 Years Later
Editor’s Note—One of my very favorite articles of all time is Buried Alive, the true, yet almost unbelievable story of what happened to N.Y. & N.J. Port Authority Police Officer Will Jimeno. It was originally published in Law Officer Magazine in July 2006. I strongly encourage you to read this updated Buried Alive and reflect on the events of 9/11 as seen through the eyes of a man who was trapped for several hours when the towers fell. Honor the memory of those who ran into those burning towers and never, never forget why it’s so important that we remain vigilant and committed to those we serve.
After standing roll call at 0645 hrs on Sept. 11, 2001, Officer Will Jimeno and his academy classmate, Dominick Pezzulo, began their tour of duty working foot posts about a block from each other at the huge Port Authority bus terminal located in the heart of Manhattan. Every day almost 250,000 people pass through this terminal as they travel the complex New York transit system.
Jimeno liked working the terminal area. He’d been on the job for only nine months and derived a lot satisfaction from helping the public. A native of Columbia, South America, Jimeno had gained U.S. citizenship while serving as a gunner’s mate in the Navy. He had always felt a strong calling to serve, and realized his lifelong dream by becoming a New York & New Jersey Port Authority (PAPD) police officer at the age of 33. “I love my country and I love my job,” he said when I originally interviewed him shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Just before 0900 hrs, Jimeno watched as two officers on an adjacent post were enveloped in the shadow of a large plane. The shadow belonged to American Flight 11, a Boeing 767 that moments later crashed into Tower Two of the World Trade Center.
The officers at the bus terminal were told to return immediately to the station and began rapidly walking back. Jimeno could see his friend Pezzulo walking about a block in front of him. At the station, the officers learned a plane had hit one of the towers. Jimeno remembers there was a lot of talking among the officers, and someone said that it was the work of terrorists. Jimeno quickly called his wife from a pay phone to tell her what was happening. As Jimeno ended the call, an inspector came in and started picking people to respond to the incident. Jimeno and Pezzulo didn’t wait to be picked; they just got in line and joined others on a commandeered bus that was escorted to the site by sector cars with blaring sirens.
Jimeno remembers the banter on the bus as they were responding. “We were kind of joking around in normal police fashion,” he said. “But we got about six blocks from the Trade Center and we saw an ambulance crew working on someone. That’s how far the debris had blown back. The bus got really quiet.”
About two blocks from the Trade Center, the bus stopped to unload the responding officers. As they exited the bus, Jimeno heard someone say, “They’re jumping.” He wasn’t sure at first what this meant but quickly realized as he saw people jumping from windows more than 100 stories above the ground. “I felt helpless. Here we are sworn to help and we were just helpless. That’s why we wear the shield,” said Jimeno, who asked openly to the group of officers around him, “What are we going to do?”
Sergeant John McLoughlin, a Port Authority officer who worked the Emergency Service unit (ESU) and knew the layout of the World Trade Center as well as anyone, provided the answer. McLoughlin told the officers he needed three volunteers who knew how to use Scott air packs. Jimeno, Pezzulo and Antonio Rodrigues all answered. They had recently graduated from the 100th Port Authority Police Academy and had trained on the air packs. Also answering the call was Officer Chris Amoroso, who had been a PAPD officer for two years. Jimeno noted that McLoughlin didn’t order anyone, he only asked for volunteers. Jimeno felt up to the job, partly because of his faith in McGloughlin. “I felt confident going with the sergeant because he knew the building like the back of his hand,” Jimeno said.
Jimeno remembers feeling encouraged by the calm nature of one of the officers on scene, Officer Bruce Reynolds, a 16-year veteran. “He came up to me and said, ‘What a mess this is.’ I remember that he was looking at me and seemed very calm,” said Jimeno. “He didn’t even have to be there because he had a heart condition. I was so impressed and it comforted me that he was so calm. I remember thinking that this is a guy to follow.” Reynolds was one of 37 PAPD officers who would perish that day.
Another officer on scene who impressed Jimeno was Officer Jimmy Lynch. Jimeno knew Lynch was recovering from arm surgery performed the day before. Despite his injury, he had responded when the call went out. He was last seen gathering air packs in the north tower.
As Jimeno and the others left on their mission, an academy instructor gave Jimeno a quick hug and told him to be careful. As they ran toward the complex, debris was falling everywhere. “It looked like a war zone,” related Jimeno. The group stopped briefly to store some unneeded equipment in a Chevrolet Suburban. Jimeno noticed the vehicle had been hit by a huge piece of concrete. Donning his rescue gear, including air pack and helmet, Jimeno found himself thinking how odd the situation was. “I don’t like fire. Here I am in firefighter gear with an ax in my hand,” he said.
McLoughlin told his four volunteers to team up and Jimeno paired up with friend and academy classmate Pezzulo, the two committing not to leave each other. Throwing rescue items into a canvas mail carrier cart, the group pushed onward, passing a large piece of the plane Jimeno believes was part of the landing gear. “I know we all had fear in our hearts but the desire to serve these people and protect them, it just made it seem okay,” he said.
Jimeno pushed the cart forward as they were standing in front of Tower Two. He passed several PAPD officers he would never see again, headed for different parts of the building. One of them was another academy classmate, Walwyn Stuart. Jimeno and Stuart hit fists, telling each other to be careful. Stuart is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of commuters when he forced them to get back onto a train and ordered the train to go back, thus leaving the area just before the collapse of the towers. “He left behind a beautiful wife and a little girl that he never got to see walk,” said Jimeno, who has shared these last moments with the officer’s family.
Jimeno was getting tired pushing the heavy cart and Rodrigues stepped in to help, telling Jimeno he didn’t want him to get too tired. The group entered a corridor that would take them into Tower One. Rodrigues began to fall behind because of the weight of the cart and Jimeno turned back to help him. The two stopped in front of a doorway and Jimeno looked out at Tower Two, the first tower struck by the hijacked aircraft. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar and a huge fireball that Jimeno describes as being larger than a house. “The whole world shook like an earthquake,” Jimeno said. Tower Two was collapsing.
McLoughlin yelled at the team to run toward the freight elevator and run they did: Pezzulo, McLoughlin, Jimeno, Rodrigues and Amoroso, in that order. At this point, the group was at a location midway between the two towers. Concrete started coming down on them. “It was like being body-slammed,” Jimeno said. “I just held on to my helmet and tried to go for my radio. Everything just kept coming down on us and before I knew it we were just covered.”
Jimeno was buried by debris facing up at a 45-degree angle. He was lying on top of his air pack. Both of his legs were pinned and his left leg was almost crushed. McLoughlin was buried behind and beneath him. Pezzulo was in a push-up position nearby. All were dazed by what had just happened. “I was in shock,” said Jimeno. “I kept hearing a loud buzz in my ears and tried to focus on what was happening.”
McLoughlin ordered the officers to sound off. Pezzulo and Jimeno responded, and then there was silence. Jimeno yelled the names of Rodrigues and Amoroso repeatedly, but they didn’t answer. “I looked over to Dom [Pezzul] and told him I didn’t think they made it. Dom told me they were in a better place,” said Jimeno.
Training kicked in. The three buried officers began communicating and evaluating their situation. “Nobody could move, but I could see a little light coming in,” said Jimeno. “I could see this hole, but I couldn’t see the sky.
“We knew we were one level under the concourse so that light meant a way out. We tried everything, but it seemed nothing worked. The radios were dead,” said Jimeno.
Pezzulo eventually managed to free himself to the point he could move around in a small cavern-like area. At McLoughlin’s direction, Pezzulo began working to see if he could free Jimeno. “I think Dom could have easily gone out the hole, but he was working to try and free me,” said Jimeno.
Pezzulo’s efforts to free Jimeno proved futile. Despite his strength, Pezzulo was unable to move a large piece of concrete held in place by rebar. Pezzulo was working valiantly to free his friend when tragedy struck once again. “He was trying to free me when Tower One fell,” said Jimeno. “I told him something big is coming again and then something huge came through and hit him. He was hurt really bad.”
The collapse of Tower One mortally wounded Pezzulo and pushed additional debris on top of McLoughlin. Jimeno remained pinned by the huge piece of concrete and covered with debris. He talked to Pezzulo as the life slowly ebbed from his friend’s body. “Dom was fighting for his life,” Jimeno related. “We talked and I told him to hang on. We cracked a couple of jokes, but Dom knew he was dying.
“With his last couple of breaths he reached out his arm and fired a shot toward the hole of light to try and get someone’s attention. He said, ‘Will, don’t forget that I died trying to save you guys,’ then he slumped over and passed,” Jimeno related. “This was really tough for me. Dom was a total gentleman, father of two kids, and he had a beautiful wife.”
Trapped beneath tons of rubble and witnessing his good friend and academy classmate die in front of him, Jimeno was overwhelmed by the situation, but it was about to get worse. “It seems crazy, almost unbelievable, but there was fire that kept coming into the area where we were, I guess from the jet fuel. I told the sergeant I thought we were going to burn,” said Jimeno.
Time after time, fireballs three and four feet in diameter would roll through the area where Jimeno was trapped. Each time they got close, the fireballs would dissipate. “It just seemed like there were angels down there because these fireballs kept extinguishing themselves. It was really hairy,” said Jimeno.
As Jimeno and McLoughlin lay trapped, they heard gunfire that Jimeno thought was the sound of a fierce gun battle. Later he learned that U.S. Customs had an armory in a nearby building and the ammunition was exploding because of the fire. “I told the sergeant that I thought the guys were shooting it out with terrorists,” said Jimeno, adding that he kept yelling ‘8-13,’ the radio call sign for a PAPD officer in distress.
When evening came, there was a lot of sharing and a lot of praying taking place deep in the rubble. McLoughlin, despite his intense pain, kept trying to use his radio but never got a response. The rolling fireballs continued and, at one point, came so close that the pistol used by Pezzulo began firing on its own, causing Jimeno to fear he was going to be killed by his fallen partner’s weapon. “I didn’t realize it was Dom’s gun at first,” said Jimeno. “Then I heard more shots and ricochets. It was about four feet from me. He had fired one round, leaving 15. How I didn’t get hit, I don’t know. The sparks were only a couple of inches from my head. I could cover my face but couldn’t move because I was buried from the waist down.”
Jimeno made his peace with God, feeling that he and McLoughlin had done everything humanly possible. “I asked God to take care of my wife who was pregnant, and my 4-year-old. I just asked God to let me see my unborn baby in heaven,” said Jimeno.
“I thanked God for a great 33 years and that I had become a Port Authority police officer. I thought at least my family would be proud I had tried to help people. If I was going to die, I couldn’t think of a more honorable way to go,” related Jimeno.
“At some point I kind of passed out and had a vision. I’m not really overly religious, but I was really, really thirsty,” Jimeno said. “I saw what I thought was Jesus coming over to me with a bottle of water. Over his shoulder was a sea of waving grass and over the other shoulder was a lake.
“Here I am in the middle of hell, and there’s Jesus with a bottle of Evian. I think Jesus really came to me that day,” said Jimeno. “It really helped inspire me. No one signs on to see what we did, but I woke up with a fighting spirit, and I told the sergeant that we’re going to get out of here some way.”
Jimeno feels strongly other officers should learn from his experience and never, never quit trying. “One thing I hope I can contribute to other officers is to keep calm. Somehow God helped me to keep my cool and stay professional,” related Jimeno. “Hopefully, the lessons I learned can help some other officer don’t ever give up. When you’re thrust into a terrible situation, if you can reach down deep and find that meaning in your life, you can survive.”
Jimeno felt he had to do something to work toward freedom, and he took a pair of Smith and Wesson handcuffs out of their pouch to use as a tool, chipping slowly away at the concrete. “Although they didn’t make a big difference in getting me free, it was a big help to me mentally because I felt like I was doing something,” related Jimeno.
After dropping his handcuffs when he passed out briefly, Jimeno tried to work his sidearm out of its holster so he could try to summon help. Unfortunately, he ended up dislodging the magazine, making it useless as a firearm. Jimeno then used the pistol to hammer away at his concrete enclosure. He also pulled repeatedly on a piece of nearby pipe, letting it go so that it would make a loud ping. As he worked, McLoughlin encouraged him to keep trying.
“We kept each other going,” said Jimeno. “We fed off each other and kept each other awake.” Buried deep in the rubble, the two officers had no way of knowing what was taking place around them.
“It was getting dark and Sarge said that they won’t come in to get us, it’s too unstable. He said they would come in the morning and I told him I didn’t know if we could make it through the night,” said Jimeno.
About 2015 hrs, Jimeno heard someone yell, “U.S. Marines.” He immediately yelled back, “Eight-13, Port Authority PD, officers down.”
The rescuers called out to the trapped officer, encouraging him to keep yelling. “God blessed me with big lungs,” said Jimeno. “I kept yelling to them. Because they said they were Marines, I told Sarge that I thought we were at war.”
Above ground, U.S. Marine Reserve Staff Sergeant David Karnes, an accountant from Connecticut who had responded on his own to the disaster, set into motion one of the most dramatic rescue operations of Sept. 11. Because cell phone systems in the area were jammed, he was unable to reach any local number to call for assistance. He managed to reach his sister in Pittsburgh and told her what was happening. She in turn called her local police department and they managed to get through to police officials in New York. As a result, two ESU officers, Scott Strauss and Paddy McGee, along with a paramedic named Chuck Serelka, were sent to the scene with other rescue personnel.
Conditions were downright dangerous. Flames were everywhere, razor sharp debris littered the area and the access to the trapped officers was so tight there was virtually no working room. Any movement of the debris could instantly end the lives of the trapped officers and their rescuers. Jimeno, hearing the cries of pain from McLoughlin, bravely told the officers to take care of his sergeant first. This wasn’t practical, though, because McLoughlin was buried farther down in the debris than Jimeno. Extricating Jimeno took a very long time because his left leg had been crushed by a huge piece of concrete. Surgical tools and IV bottles were on hand in the event that amputation was necessary, but the rescuers were committed to saving Jimeno’s leg.
“McLoughlin’s yells were driving me crazy and it was taking a long time,” said Jimeno. “I told Strauss, ‘Just cut my leg off,’ but Strauss said, ‘No way, you’re coming out in one piece.’ I still have both legs thanks to him.”
When he was finally freed, Jimeno had been buried for more than 13 hours. It would take another eight hours for a fresh rescue team to extricate McLoughlin. Both were in tremendous pain and had been seriously injured by the collapse. Jimeno nearly died at the hospital. “They told me I flatlined twice on the table. It’s a miracle I made it out of there,” said Jimeno.
Jimeno’s recovery has not been without challenges, and he is the first to admit that at times he was psychologically overwhelmed by what he had been through. He has actively sought help for both his physical and mental trauma. Jimeno said one of the most trying times was when he went to Amoroso’s funeral.
“I had been hospitalized during the other funerals,” Jimeno explained. “I was asked to give his wife a flag, and I was very honored, but it was so very hard. To be there at the funeral with his wife and his 2-year-old little girl, it was tough. I was in a wheelchair, and I thank God I was able to make it. He was a teammate and he loved his job. Chris led so many people out and went back. He just embodies heroism.”
In May 2002, Jimeno made the trip to Washington, D.C., for the annual Law Enforcement Officers Memorial services. He and McLoughlin were honored at the candlelight ceremony with a prolonged standing ovation by thousands of fellow officers. “It was painful because they were saluting officers who had given their lives. It hurts so much to lose just one officer. We lost 37,” Jimeno said.
At the U.S. Capitol ceremonies, Jimeno accompanied Jeanette Pezzulo forward as she placed the flower honoring her fallen husband into the large memorial wreath. Together they heard President Bush speak of the heroic efforts of the fallen officers and specifically recognize Pezullo, saying, “In his final moments, trapped in rubble, Officer Dominick Pezzulo called out to one of his fellow officers, and he said, ‘Just remember me.’ The last voice he heard was Officer Will Jimeno, promising him they would never forget. So, Dominick, today we remember we remember courage and bravery and sacrifice.”
Jimeno later met the president. Leaning heavily on a cane for support, Jimeno proudly extended his hand and introduced himself. President Bush replied, “I know who you are, son. God bless you.” As the president gave Jimeno’s arm a squeeze, the Columbian-born, PAPD rookie was overwhelmed. The president of the United States had just told him he knew who he was.
Today & The Big Screen
Fast forward to the present. Will Jimeno had to retire from the PAPD; the injury to his leg was just too severe and the pain too great. He’s endured incredible struggles with pain, rehabilitation and post-traumatic stress disorder. But something happened that brought a whole new light to what he’d been through. Seems the story of Sgt. John McLoughlin and Officer Will Jimeno came to the attention of Hollywood.
“Actually, John and I wanted to do a book as a legacy for our fellow officers and their children,” Jimeno said. “We were approached by a movie agent and went reluctantly. We weren’t even walking yet. We listened, and he said we had an interesting story; we told him to come back when he had something.”
“Maybe a year later, he comes back with a lovely lady named Debra Hill, and she was very moved by the story. She didn’t see the story as just cops; she saw it as how America came together, and she also saw the importance of the families. This was a really important part of the story what the families went through,” Jimeno said. “Later we were approached by Producer Michael Shamberg [known for producing Erin Brockovich], who wanted to buy the rights to the story.”
“We really laid down the rules the story had to be done right and truly tell the story. They brought in an excellent story, and then Oliver Stone got involved; he promised to make a movie that was true to the event,” Jimeno said.
On Memorial Day in 2005, everything came together. There was a script and the actors had been cast. Nicolas Cage played McLoughlin and Michael Pena played Jimeno. “Oliver Stone seemed to be blown away by the script,” Jimeno explained.
The next few months happened fast for Jimeno. He flew back and forth to Los Angeles to serve as a technical advisor on the set, a role he took seriously and enjoyed. “Oliver really kept me and John involved. Filmmaking has a life of its own because something may need to be changed to flow with the film. But if I saw something and said, ‘Hey, that’s not the way it would happen – cops will know,’ he [Stone] would listen.'”
Jimeno said when he told Stone he was surprised an Oscar-winning director would pay attention to him, Stone explained Jimeno was the truth—the real deal—and that was important to the movie. “He understands the importance of camaraderie. He kept us in the loop and frequently wanted me to show him exactly how things happened,” Jimeno said.
Jimeno wasn’t the only one brought out to Los Angeles; 10 PAPD officers, five NYPD ESU Truck One officers (the unit that rescued Jimeno) and eight FDNY Truck Five personnel (who rescued McLoughlin) also came to the set. Not only did they serve as advisors, they also took on the role of actors. “Oliver put them in the film and bumped out real actors,” Jimeno said. “They played some of the rescuers. That was important to Oliver, but it was really important to John and me because they were the ones who rescued us.”
The Hollywood set was not an easy environment for the officers or fire personnel. “When they went out to that rubble field, it broke them down because it brought back so much of what they went through,” Jimeno said, who himself had a tough time dealing with one particular scene. “Nicolas Cage was playing John and there was a scene where he was screaming in pain. I had to leave the set; I just couldn’t take it.”
When a screening of the first 26 minutes of the movie was held for many of the officers, the viewing brought back a lot of emotions. “Guys who have enough medals to choke an elephant, they were in tears,” Jimeno said. “We were all really moved.”
Jimeno is the first to admit it’s not all been a bed of roses, and his life has had a series of ups and downs. Both he and McLoughlin had to retire, and both have serious injuries that continue to cause them pain. Ever the optimist though, Jimeno is quick to put it in perspective: “We have a saying, ‘If you’re walking and talking, there’s no reason to complain,'” he said.
Almost 10 years later, Jimeno is still active with law enforcement. He’s frequently asked to make presentations at gatherings and always tries to say yes. “These guys are my heroes,” he said. His youngest daughter, Bianca, is now almost 10. She hadn’t yet been born when 9/11 happened. He’s told his story at her school and many others. “I tell them (the youth) they’re going to make this country a better place. And I always tell them to remember those who make sacrifices for them—the military and the police. The feedback I get from them is priceless and very encouraging. It keeps me going,” Jimeno said.
“We can’t lose sight of what happened and the positive of what we can do,” said Jimeno. “We need to face the truth and remember what was lost. By remembering that, we will become stronger and the terrorists will never win. It’s never too soon to honor our heroes.”
There’s no doubt Sept. 11th changed the world as we know it for virtually every American. Few were impacted as dramatically as Will Jimeno. However, we can all gain strength and encouragement from Jimeno’s indomitable spirit. “I live for every officer who gave his life and for every one who died in the towers. The terrorists thought they could keep us down, but I’m going to show them you just can’t do this to America,” said Jimeno.