By Karen Mancinelli Daily Record
A Chester resident and September 11 survivor delivered a message of hope to Morris County students last week.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something,” Will Jimeno told Black River Middle School students Thursday. “My sergeant, my team, we were in the middle of both World Trade Centers. They both fell on us. How I’m here is a miracle.”
Jimeno was a rookie Port Authority Police Officer trapped for 13 hours on September 11, 2001. He and his sergeant, John McLoughlin, were the only two people rescued from under the World Trade Centers. Their ordeal was the subject of Oliver Stone’s 2006 movie World Trade Center.
“Faith, love and hope. Remember those three words,” Jimeno said. “If you have those three things, you can overcome anything.”
Talking about that day and the bravery of his colleagues, Jimeno called his story an “American story.” It was also a personal to one student: his daughter, Olivia, who was in the audience.
Stationed at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, Jimeno said he remembers seeing the big shadow of an airplane darken the street corner. Then his radio crackled and all of officers were recalled to the police desk.
On a television set, Jimeno and other officers saw Tower One with a gaping hole, engulfed in black smoke. When they arrived on a commandeered bus with 20 officers, they could see smoke from Tower 2, but didn’t know it also had been hit.
“It looked like a war zone. I remember standing there, thinking to myself, ‘This is what I became a police officer for.’ But I remembered thinking to myself how small I felt. As a police officer you put on your vest, you put on your gun belt, you put on your badge. You kind of feel invincible. But the reality, kids, is that nobody is invincible,” he said. “We are all just human beings.”
During a stint in the Navy, Jimeno said he learned that competent leadership could mean the difference between life and death. So when the well-respected McLoughlin came looking for volunteers, Jimeno and others volunteered in unison. The team set off running for the World Trade Center.
“I’ll tell you here and now. There is nothing wrong with being scared. I was scared. But where does courage come from, kids? It comes from overcoming your fears. I still knew that I had a job to do because there were people depending on us.”
The Port Authority officers were in the Concourse when Jimeno saw a fireball and heard an enormous boom. Everything was shaking.
“I held my helmet and I didn’t know what to do. Remember what I said? Follow someone who knows what they’re doing. That’s when Sgt. McLoughlin said, ‘Run to the elevator!’ We didn’t think twice. We listened to the Sarge.” McLoughlin knew the shaft was their best hope of safety.
Two members of their team were killed in that collapse: Port Authority Police Officers Antonio Rodrigues and Christopher Amoroso.
Jimeno’s leg was trapped under a wall. McLoughlin was trapped some distance away but not in pain. Dominick Pezzulo, a former teacher and a body builder, was able to shimmy out of entrapment.
Pezzulo was about to go for help when McLoughlin reminded him that they needed to stay together. Free Jimeno, and then the two of them could free McLoughlin. Pezzulo had a choice to make, and he worked to free Jimeno for 20 minutes, until Tower One fell.
Pezzulo was mortally wounded, 3 feet from Jimeno.
“His bravery is something that I talk about every day,” Jimeno said. “In a last-ditch effort to make someone hear us down there, he fired one round out the hole, then slumped over and died.”
Now McLoughlin, too, was in excruciating pain.
“The next three hours were torture,” he said. His leg was in agony. Then fireballs from jet fuel started falling into the 30-foot hole above Jimeno, yet somehow each was extinguished; the work of a draft, he found out years later.
As the fireballs heated up Pezzulo’s metal Smith and Wesson, the gun fired its remaining 15 rounds, each missing Jimeno. When it stopped, he couldn’t believe he was still alive, but he was exhausted physically and mentally.
“I just made a decision that I wanted to die. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up.” He wanted his wife to know he loved her and that he agreed with her choice of names for their unborn daughter – Olivia. McLoughlin put out a message on his police radio about the name, not knowing if anyone would ever hear it.
Jimeno said he made peace with himself, and thanked God for the blessings in his life. But he was sad that he wouldn’t be there for Olivia’s birth. He was thirsty, and when he got to Heaven, he just wanted some water. Then Jimeno had what must have been a vision, he said.
“I closed my eyes and I see to the right side a lake with trees, very tranquil. To my left I saw an endless tall sea of grass. Then I see a person coming toward me. I can’t see his face. I can see brown hair and a white robe, and it’s long. I know who that is in my mind. And what does he have in his hand? A big bottle of water.”
Everything changed, he said.
“If I was going to die, I was going to do it on my terms.” Giving up would abandon McLoughlin who wouldn’t be heard by rescuers, and he’d be abandoning his family.
Around 8 p.m. he heard two voices: “United States Marine Corps. Can anybody hear us?”
“Two Marine reservists were brave enough to go into the epicenter,” Jimeno said. His rescue took three hours. Firefighters kept flames a bay. Dangerous conditions emperiled rescuers. He and McLoughlin, who was freed after 22 hours, endured incredible pain in silence.
“I remember coming up out of the hole and I could see the moon, because 9-11 was a beautiful, clear day. I could see smoke and I don’t see the buildings. That’s when I said, ‘Where is everything?’ and a firefighter said, ‘It’s all gone, kid.’”
It’s the first time he cried, he said.
“It was the pain of a police officer knowing that people were still in those buildings, and I felt we failed. We weren’t able to bring everybody home. And that hurt.”
‘Hero’ is a special term, Jimeno told the students. Real heroes are police officers, firefighters, doctors, teachers, parents and mentors.
“You are my heroes,” he had told them early on. “You are what’s going to lead this nation,” he said. “In each of you is something special. You have to make a difference in people’s lives.” He urged them to be good to each other and to persevere through their own challenges.
Jimeno’s rehab therapists promised that if he worked hard enough, he could be present at Olivia’s birth. He was.
About two years later, Jimeno was at an Easter Seals event where he talked with the wife of a fallen FDNY officer. He said he felt survivor’s guilt. But she asked him to do her a favor: Do what is in the middle of Olivia’s name — O-liv-ia.
“Live. No matter what happens in your life, no matter how bad things get, live.”