The oddest thing about being trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center was that Will Jimeno didn’t break any bones. The Port Authority police officer had 220 stories of the World Trade Center fall on top of him — all of both towers, first the south, then the north — a violence of unimaginable scale, velocity and intensity, one that killed three of the other officers he’d been standing with moments earlier, and entombing him and his surviving sergeant amid concrete and rock for hours on Sept. 11, 2001. But weeks later, when he was recovering, still hospitalized, covered in bandages and tubes, having flatlined twice on the operating table, his sister asked the doctors: “How many bones did he break?”
“None,” they replied.
Jimeno’s very arrival at the hospital on the night of 9/11 had been a welcome surprise.
In the moments after the first plane hit at 8:46 a.m. and then the second at 9:03, followed by the collapse of the South Tower at 9:59 a.m. and the North at 10:28, hospitals across the New York region activated disaster protocols, planning for mass casualties, and even up and down the east coast, hospitals wondered if they’d receive airlifted trauma patients.
But by afternoon, the doctors and nurses lined up in overflow emergency rooms and triage sites in cafeterias realized that the flood of patients wasn’t coming. The intensity of the towers’ collapse meant that nearly all those near or trapped inside died. As rescuers began to flood the rubble field that would eventually become known as Ground Zero late Tuesday morning and into the afternoon, they found no survivors.
Well, almost none.
18 people survived the collapse that day. Most were with a group of FDNY firefighters in the North Tower’s Stairwell B, which remained essentially intact. One survived after the stairs she was rushing down disintegrated around her. But just two people were rescued from underneath the ruin: Jimeno and his sergeant that day, John McLoughlin.
Jimeno and McLoughlin’s story is an incredible tale of survival — one featured in a 2006 Oliver Stone movie. And yet, from the first time I spoke with Jimeno, as part of my 2019 oral history of the attacks of Sept. 11, The Only Plane in the Sky, I’ve been drawn back to him not because of what he endured on that day, but because of what came after.
It’s the part of Jimeno’s story that most Americans don’t know — the part that happened after he was rescued from the rubble and after the Oliver Stone movie ended, one told for the first time in his new memoir, Sunrise Through the Darkness — that makes his story worth remembering as we look back on the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, the ensuing two decades of the War on Terror, and the legacies of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After all, while Jimeno didn’t break any bones on 9/11, he was among the first to face what’s become perhaps the defining injury of the War on Terror.
Chapter I: The Collapse
Tuesday, Sept. 11 was so beautiful that Jimeno considered taking the day off to hunt. The giant storm that had blown through the northeast the afternoon before had left behind sun, clear blue skies, and crisp fall temperatures. Jimeno was an archer — he’d taken up bow-hunting from his wife’s family — and it was a perfect day for deer hunting. That fall, his wife Allison was seven months pregnant with their second child.
Jimeno, 32, was still a rookie; he’d been living his dream of becoming a police officer for just nine months. His parents had come to the United States, to Hackensack, N.J., in 1970 from Colombia when he was just two years old. His father, a welder, and his mother, a beautician, had worked to send him to Catholic school, and he had joined the Navy right out of high school, serving aboard the helicopter carrier USS Tripoli, before returning home, heading to community college and taking the test to join the police department for the bistate Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
He and 76 other police cadets had graduated in a January 2001 ceremony at the Marriott Hotel at the World Trade Center, nestled between the bases of the Twin Towers. The sixteen-acre site was the shining jewel of the properties protected by the 1,700-officer multi-state Port Authority, which also protected New York-area airports — LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark — the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City, the PATH commuter train system, as well as the tunnels and bridges between the two states. During the ceremony, Jimeno had seen his younger daughter Bianca waving in the crowd, shouting, “Daddy! Daddy!” “We had big smiles on our faces,” Jimeno would say later. “I waited all my life to become a police officer.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, he decided to skip the hunting and head in for the 6:45 a.m. roll call; he was assigned to the bus terminal at the time and at 8:46 he’d been standing post at the corner of 42nd and Eighth Avenue, watching the morning rush of commuters heading into work, when a shadow passed over the intersection. “It completely covered the street for a split second,” Jimeno recalls. He saw people point, but has no memory of hearing an airplane; nor did he realize what had cast the giant shadow.
Seemingly within moments, Jimeno and every other PAPD officer at the bus terminal were called to return to the department’s main desk. He crossed paths on his way back inside with a fellow rookie, his academy friend Dominick Pezzulo, who said, “Willy” — Pezzulo was the one person in Jimeno’s life who used his childhood nickname — “something must be really bad for them to call us all back to the police desk.”
“Yeah, I can’t imagine what it could be,” Jimeno replied.
Inside, they were informed American Airlines Flight 11 had hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center and they were being sent south to help with the rescue mission. Jimeno called Allison briefly, to explain he was OK, but what would linger in her mind over the hours to come was that he hung up, hurriedly, without his customary “I love you.”
The officers commandeered an MTA bus on Ninth Avenue and raced toward the burning building with a PAPD Suburban running escort ahead. The second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hit sometime during their drive, and amid the day’s chaos, Jimeno never even realized it had happened. They arrived within minutes; papers were raining down around lower Manhattan and the enormity of the moment and the task ahead sank in as they started to see wounded civilians while still blocks away. “All I can describe it as is Armageddon — that’s how bad it was,” he recalled in an oral history with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, one of hundreds I used to compile my 2019 book.
Then he saw his first jumper: A blonde man, wearing a pink, collared shirt and khakis. “When he jumped, he jumped almost like as if he was on a cross, like Jesus. He just jumped, looking up in the air, and he just went down,” Jimeno recalled.
At the scene, Sergeant John McLoughlin asked for volunteers to help inside — he specifically needed officers who were familiar with how to use the Scott Air-Pak breathing apparatus that PAPD used for firefighting. Because of the agency’s unique responsibility at the airports, all Port Authority officers were also cross-trained in basic firefighting, and Jimeno, Pezzulo, and a third officer, Antonio Rodrigues, spoke up — since they’d just graduated, they still remembered their training.
Jimeno recalls thinking that he wanted to stick close to McLoughlin that day: His Navy training had taught him that, in a bad situation, it’s best to follow a leader you respect who is going to increase your chances of getting out alive. Over the preceding months he’d come to respect the experience of the mustachioed, Irish-American, 22-year veteran of PAPD.
The small team went into the PAPD’s subterranean station at the Trade Center — part of the vast underground network of tunnels, shopping malls, and transit stations that filled the 16-acre Trade Center complex. The Twin Towers dominated the Manhattan skyline, but the full World Trade Center complex comprised of seven buildings that saw more than 50,000 total daily occupants and some 200,000 daily visitors. Inside the PAPD substation, they donned helmets, rescue gear, and their Scott Air-Paks. The only PAPD firefighter coats they could find were too small for Jimeno, who is built like a tank with broad shoulders, so he proceeded without one. “We look like firefighters with guns on our side,” Jimeno recalled.
As they passed through the PAPD office, he spotted an incongruous piece of the crashed airplane’s fuselage sitting at the reception desk, where it had been placed by a PAPD detective. “I remember being stunned,” he recalled. “You’re trying to register — even though you know that a plane had hit — why is there a piece of the plane here at the police desk?”
Then the group gathered a large mail cart and began to hunt for more rescue equipment to fill it with before they headed up toward the raging fire high overhead. Another officer, Christopher Amoroso, joined them — his face already bleeding from being hit by a piece of debris. “We’ve just got to keep working,” Amoroso said, dismissing concern over his injury.
As they passed through the tunnels and hallways underneath the tower, they could see the marble walls had cracked and they trudged through several inches of water as burst pipes flooded the building.
“I was feeding off the professionalism of my fellow officers — we were all scared, but we had a job to do,” Jimeno recalls. “In the midst of all this chaos, all this disaster, inside that World Trade Center, there were people helping each other. I remember seeing a Black gentleman with a white gentleman, carrying this blonde woman who had a severe cut on her leg. I remember thinking to myself, Will, if these normal civilians can be this brave, we as rescue workers, we need to be three steps above them, because they’re counting on us.”
They passed another team of five PAPD officers, also pushing a cart full of equipment, and Jimeno recognized another academy friend, Walwyn Stuart. They punched fists and told each other, “Be safe,” and headed on their separate ways. “That would be the last time we saw any of those Port Authority police officers,” Jimeno recalled.
Moments later, at 9:59 a.m., Jimeno’s team of five was in the hallway between the North and South Tower when they heard a boom, followed by a growing rumble. “Everything started shaking,” Jimeno recalled. “I looked back toward the lobby, and I saw a fireball the size of my house coming. Sergeant McLoughlin yelled, ‘Run!’ I said to myself, What did I get myself into? As I was running, I could see a light in front of me. I remember thinking, in a split second, Wow, I should run toward the light, maybe it will take me outside. Then I remembered we promised we would not leave each other. I saw Dominick run, he turned to the left, so I started to follow him. At that point, all I felt was my body go up in the air and get slammed.”
They were hit first by the rush of air as the South Tower compressed and fell, and then the hallway fell around them. Jimeno felt a piece of concrete hit his helmet and knock it off; his radio went flying. “We were getting pummeled with debris. I was trying to fight for my life,” Jimeno recalled. “As fast as this was happening, it ended.”
Trapped amid the rubble, he began to call on his radio for help, using the PAPD’s emergency code, “8-13! 8-13! Officers down! 8-13! Jimeno — we’re down! Our team is down!”
Amid the debris, McLoughlin tried a roll call: “Sound off! Where is everybody? Sound off!” Pezzulo turned out to be buried in debris nearby too. “Dominick said, ‘Pezzulo!’ I said, ‘Jimeno!’ And that’s all we heard,” Jimeno recalled. “For the next two minutes, I just would yell, “Chris!” — for Christopher Amoroso — and ‘A-Rod!’ which was Antonio Rodrigues’ nickname. I just kept yelling for about two minutes. ‘A-Rod! Chris! A-Rod! Chris!’ And that’s when Dominick said, ‘Willy, they’re in a better place.’”
Chapter II: Trapped
The collapse of the hallway had buried and separated the officers; Peluzzo was off to Jimeno’s left, in a pushup position, amid loose debris, whereas one of the hallway’s walls had collapsed on Jimeno’s left side, trapping him tightly face up. He had just inches of space above his face. McLoughlin seemed to be about 15 feet away, trapped in a fetal position, but not crushed himself. “I could hear him but I couldn’t see him because right past my feet it was nothing but concrete,” Jimeno recalled. Far over their heads, about 30 feet up amid the collapsed debris, they could see a spot of daylight.
After 10 minutes or so, Peluzzo managed to shimmy out and moved over into the space near Jimeno. “Dominick said, ‘Sarge, I can go out this hole,’” Jimeno recalled. “Sergeant McLoughlin said, ‘No, if you leave, you’ll never find us. You need to get Jimeno out, and you and Jimeno get me out.’” The debate went on for a few minutes, with Peluzzo eager to leave and find more help. “We’re human beings — and here you’re presented with a situation where you can go out for help, go for freedom and come back, or you stay in — literally — a hell-hole, with your team,” Jimeno recalled. “There’s no superheroes here — we’re regular human beings. Dominick had a real tough decision. In the end, he said, ‘I’m going to get Will out.’”
As Peluzzo worked unsuccessfully to free Jimeno, the surviving trio talked about what they thought had happened; they had no sense that the tower had collapsed. McLoughlin suggested that perhaps a car bomb had exploded outside the building on the plaza upstairs, a tactic common among terrorists in the Middle East — use a first attack to lure in rescuers, then set off a secondary explosion to target them. They kept shouting, “PAPD officers down!” hoping someone would hear their plight. Finally, after about 15 minutes, Peluzzo admitted defeat. “He said, ‘I can’t get you out,’” Jimeno recalled.
It was 10:28 a.m.
And the second rumble came, same as the first.
“I remember Dominick backing up a little bit, and I said to him, ‘This is it. It’s over,’” Jimeno recalled. “It sounded like a humongous locomotive coming at us. All I could think was, I’m gonna die. One of the things I’ve always done with my girls — Allison and Bianca — was I would make the sign-language sign for ‘I love you.’ I made the ‘I love you’ sign — and I crossed them over my chest. I figured if I was going to die and they found me, they would at least tell my wife that I was crossed like that, so she would know I was thinking of her.”
A piece of falling concrete hit Peluzzo squarely and Jimeno saw him collapse like a rag doll; elsewhere, McLoughlin too was pummeled anew by more debris and began to scream in pain. “We had both towers actually land on us,” Jimeno recalls.
And then, as quickly as it began, the collapse ended.
Peluzzo was bleeding, badly, and told Jimeno, matter-of-factly, “Willy, I’m dying man.” Finding the strength for humor, he asked McLoughlin for a break. “Dominick says to Sergeant McLoughlin, “Can I have a 3-8?” which is a break for a Port Authority police officer,” Jimeno recalled. “Sergeant McLoughlin, even though he was yelling says, ‘Yeah, you can take 3-8.’
“I’m looking over at Dominick, and Dominick says, ‘Willy, don’t forget I died trying to save you guys.’ I said, ‘Dominick, I would never let anyone ever forget that,’” Jimeno recalled. “His last minutes, he struggled to take his firearm out of his holster. He pointed it up toward that hole in the rubble far over our heads. We had been yelling, ‘PAPD officers down!’ hoping someone would hear us. He pointed his firearm up in the air, to that hole, and fired his gun as a last-ditch effort for someone to hear us. Then, he slumped over and died.”
Jimeno and McLoughlin were on their own; there was no one coming to rescue them. No one even knew they were there. Their position worsened as the morning and afternoon passed; fireballs rained down from the debris above, Jimeno desperately moving as he could to avoid them. At one point, the heat from the flames set off the remaining rounds of Peluzzo’s gun. “It took me a second to figure out what it was,” Jimeno recalled “I would see these sparks. And I would hear, ‘Pow! Pow! Pow!’ And I looked over, and that’s when I realized Dominick’s gun was firing. There were ricochets shooting right over my head.”
Jimeno was in bad shape, physically and mentally. McLoughlin too. Through the rubble, they chatted. The two men had worked together but they were more or less strangers to one another. They talked about their families, about life, about anything. Hours passed. As Jimeno recalls, “We kept going back and forth, trying to keep each other going. I would yell at the Sergeant if I heard him fading away; he would yell at me if I was fading away. All I could do was hope, and pray, and that’s something we did. We prayed together, at one point, McLoughlin said, ‘I don’t even know your first name.’ I said, ‘Will.’ He said, ‘Mine’s John.’”
At one point, Jimeno remembered, he just wanted to give up and die. He thanked God for his wife and four years with his daughter Bianca and lamented how he’d miss the birth of his daughter. “I closed my eyes, and I made my peace with God,” he recalled. “I said, ‘If I reach Heaven, the only thing I’m going to ask for is a glass of water,’ because I was so thirsty, and as crazy as it sounds, your mind works in mysterious ways. That’s all I asked for.”
Then his resolve stiffened; he decided that if he was going to die that Tuesday, he wanted to do so on his own terms. He began to dig around him, however futilely it seemed. At one point, he was scraping the concrete with the end of his handcuffs. He tried to hammer with the magazine from his own pistol. He promised McLoughlin, “We’re going to get out of this hellhole,” and kept yelling for rescuers.
But their situation worsened.
His body, injured, was beginning to swell — a condition known as compartment syndrome, as the injuries to his trapped legs caused the pressure in his body to build.
More time passed. His efforts weakened, as did the conversation with McLoughlin.
Above, at the tiny crack of light, the daylight began to fade. “Sergeant McLoughlin said, ‘I don’t know if we’ll make it to daytime. They’re not going to be able to get in here until daylight, because they have to secure the area, and we gotta hold on,’” Jimeno recalled.
Then, after darkness, they heard voices shouting in the distance — not firefighters, nor police officers, but two U.S. Marines.
Or, more accurately, two ex-Marines.
Chapter III: The Rescue
The somewhat improbable story of Jimeno and McLoughlin’s rescue actually begins far from Ground Zero.
That morning, as words of the attacks spread, 43-year-old David W. Karnes had been at his day job as an accountant for Deloitte in Connecticut; he’d spent 20 years in the Marines and left the service three years earlier for civilian life. He immediately recognized the attack as an act of war, and, as he watched the collapse of both towers and the subsequent attack on the Pentagon and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93, leapt into action. He left his desk, stopped at a local barber for a Marine-regulation high-and-tight haircut, put on his own camouflage fatigues, and drove to Lower Manhattan — figuring, rightly as it turned out, that the police manning roadblocks along the way would wave through someone who looked the military part.
In Lower Manhattan, chaos continued in the early hours of the afternoon; rescue efforts were haphazard at best, as the Fire Department of New York reckoned not just with the tragic loss of hundreds of its members but the devastation of its command structure. The scene was a literal hellscape; fires raged in surrounding buildings; streets and bystanders were covered in the thick white dust that would become one of the signature visuals of the attack; destroyed emergency vehicles, crushed like cardboard toys, filled the surrounding blocks. And then there was the site’s signature, haunting sound: The high-pitched emergency alarms from the air-packs of hundreds of missing firefighters, all sounding continuously from the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Among the crowd were first responders, construction workers and other military personnel who had gathered at the former site of the World Trade Center. There, Karnes, amazingly, found another former Marine who’d responded the same way he had: A 27-year-old former sergeant, Jason Thomas, who had left active duty months earlier. He’d been dropping off his daughter at his mother’s house when he heard of the attack; he too had donned his old uniform and headed for the World Trade Center site. “Someone needed help. It didn’t matter who,” he told reporters years later. “I didn’t even have a plan. But I have all this training as a Marine, and all I could think was, ‘My city is in need.’”
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.
Chapter IV: The Reckoning
Jimeno spent more than a month in the hospital; his legs had been severely damaged — doctors rushed that first night to cut him open from hip to ankle and relieve the crippling pressure inside — but the ordeal of 13 hours inside the rubble of the World Trade Center had seemingly damaged every inch of him. He seemed half-human, half-concrete; a vacuum was needed to clear his lungs of rocks and debris. “One of the doctors mentioned that they had to flush my lungs because my lungs looked like I had smoked for 30 years; I hadn’t smoked a day in my life,” he writes in his memoir, Sunrise Through the Darkness. Debris caked his hair and filled his ear canals.
He twice flatlined, nearly dying. He could see his family, but he was intubated, unable to speak, and his hands were too swollen to write or even use the sign-language he usually communicated to his wife with. His right arm had burns, from the fireballs rolling through the debris.
Police officers stood vigil by his bedside, and in the days ahead, Jimeno reckoned with the day’s loss to his own department — the superintendent and head of his academy had both died, as had the chief of the PAPD. All told, PAPD lost 37 officers that day, including Peluzzo, Rodrigues, and Amoroso. He and McLoughlin had almost made 39. In the newspaper one day, he spotted pictures of the hijackers and stared at each face in turn: What would make you do this?
Gradually he began to stand again and improved enough to be discharged to a rehab facility in New Jersey on Oct. 19, 12 days after U.S. airstrikes had begun in Afghanistan in retaliation for the September attacks. On Nov. 26, still in a wheelchair, Jimeno welcomed the baby daughter he never thought he’d live to see, Olivia; his wife had a scheduled C-section so that Olivia shared her father’s birthday. “I almost missed this grand moment,” he recalls.
In the years that followed, as his physical condition improved, his mental state declined. The familiarity of home was overtaken by sadness, then anger. Fun and easy-going by nature, Jimeno found his temper now seemingly on a hair-trigger; he exploded over small situations, berating family, his wife, or friends over mundane tribulations and mild frustrations. One night he yelled at his brother-in-law after his wife offered them an extra tray of eggplant parmesan; Jimeno, who didn’t even like eggplant, started shouting: “What the fuck! You’re eating all the food.”
Another night, he caught himself just as he prepared to throw a shoe at his wife amid a dispute over the TV remote.
Jimeno was horrified and ashamed. He left the house and drove off to a wildlife management area where he liked to hunt; sitting in the truck staring out at the field where he would have been off hunting, oblivious to the attacks on Sept. 11, had he taken the personal day he’d considered.
When he returned home, he went into his older daughter’s room. “Bianca,” he asked, “does daddy yell a lot?”
“Yeah, Daddy, you scare me sometimes,” she replied, truthfully.
Jimeno was devastated. As he describes the moment in his book, “That’s when I realized if I’m not a good husband, a good dad, a good example, then the terrorists win.”
With time, he came to realize that he had undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; as much as so many doctors, nurses and medical professionals had pored over every inch of his body in the weeks after he was pulled alive from the rubble, no one had paid much attention to his mind.
Jimeno’s new battle, as it would turn out, foreshadowed an experience millions of veterans returning from the wars of terror overseas would soon face themselves. PTSD has become something of the signature injury of the War on Terror; millions of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned home safely, only to struggle with the mental, emotional and moral injuries of their time in combat. Today, there are some four million Americans who have fought in the post-9/11 wars; a Pew Study in 2019 found that “roughly half say they had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences related to their military service, and about a third say they sought professional help to deal with those experiences.” Roughly one-in-three say they believe they have symptoms of PTSD.
In the months that followed his own self-realization, Jimeno found himself struggling to confront his own mental health. He found sessions with a police therapist frustrating. “The words just weren’t there — and I’m never short of words,” he recalls in his new book.
The anger continued. Then, one day, about two years after 9/11 in mid-2003 — as U.S. forces in Iraq began to feel the first rumblings of the insurgency that would drag on for years — on the way home from the store, his younger daughter Olivia spilled her drink. He reached around from the front seat and grabbed her shirt.
His wife screamed, “Will, what the fuck is wrong with you? She’s just a little girl.”
Jimeno had reached his breaking point. As he writes, “It was time to get serious about facing my PTSD.” He called a psychologist friend: “I really need to talk to someone.”
Chapter V: Finding Light
Jimeno’s months ahead were hard. He worked with the psychologist, Debbie Mandell, to understand the triggers for his anger and the emotional trauma he’d borne alone, untreated. Again, he first felt he wasn’t making any progress and considered quitting treatment. At times, survivor’s guilt overwhelmed him. “Why am I alive and not them?” he asked in one session.
Finally, Mandell confronted him: “Will, you’re going to have to live with this. We’re at a point where we can keep kicking a dead horse, or we’re going to move forward and say, ‘OK, you have PTSD, you’re angry. How are we going to deal with this? What are you going to do?”
For the first time, Jimeno seemed to hear her and, even more, to understand.
To this day, Jimeno is forthright about the challenge he faces. He knows PTSD isn’t about being “cured.” It’s about finding ways to manage the trauma and the triggers. In our first conversation years ago, he told me, “The day I beat PTSD is the day that they lay me in the ground.”
Still, it wouldn’t be easy; he says that he struggled with his serious survivor’s guilt for more than a decade, only really conquering it through the model life of the widow of his partner that day, Antonio Rodrigues. He watched as she made a point of living a happy life, despite losing the love of her life, and gave himself permission to be happy too. “It took years to allow myself to feel sad without it having to envelop me,” he explains in his memoir.
Instead of “beating” PTSD, Jimeno’s learned in the last 17 years to live with it, to recognize his pain and the trauma he experienced. With work and help, he identified his own triggers — situations that caused either physical or emotional pain, times when he felt helpless or powerless, or situations where he confronted the unknown. “It took years of screwing up,” he says, but he learned how to stop what he calls that “damn hamster wheel,” interrupting a growing bout of anger before it can explode. He tries to remove himself from situations before they escalate and plunge into something physical instead — a walk, an elliptical, a punching bag.
And he hunts — a lot — a pastime that he says has become an important part of his healing. We’re friends on Facebook, and his feed is filled with photos of him deep in the woods, hidden in fields, and otherwise sinking himself into the calm of nature. His younger daughter is now old enough to hunt alongside him. He says there’s nothing more magical than sitting in a hunting blind and watching the world wake up around him. “It is a reminder to live each day and not clinging to the past or fearing the future,” he writes in his new memoir.
With time, he also realized the pain he was causing his own family — the collateral damage to his wife and others of his anger — and confronted his mistakes and emotions. “I decided to use the anger in a way that I fought for my life and not against PTSD,” he writes in his memoir. “Each time I faced up to a mistake, it felt like I was taking ownership of my life away from PTSD.”
Jimeno was medically retired from his dream job at the PAPD in 2004 — after really only working as a cop for the nine months before 9/11 — and has dedicated himself in the years since to speaking to groups living through their own struggles.
He makes the rounds of rehab facilities, substance abuse programs, churches and jails, as well as speaking to military groups and police academy classes. He speaks to a lot of elementary, middle and high schools, and the occasional college. At each, he brings a small piece of the steel from the World Trade Center that fell 20 years ago Saturday.
In all his presentations, he talks about what it’s like when the World Trade Center falls on top of you — and how you stand back up. Ultimately, Jimeno came to understand that he wasn’t defined by the building that fell on him. Instead, he would be defined by what he did despite it.
Trauma, Jimeno says, isn’t comparative or competitive. Whatever your own personal trauma is can be just as devastating to you as his was to him. At some point, Jimeno says, in all our lives, we’re going to feel like the World Trade Center fell on top of us — whether it’s the death of a family member, a bad breakup, a divorce, the loss of a job, an accident, addiction, abuse, a sexual assault, depression or something else. It might even be, he says, the final exam next week that you don’t think you can make it through.
It’s what we do in that moment — and who we are after — that matters most.
“People always come up to me and they said, ‘Will, I can’t think of anything worse than the World Trade Center falling on you, 220 stories,’” he told me this summer, when we spoke again for my new podcast. “Whatever tragic event is happening in your life, at that moment, you have your own World Trade Center. It’s what you do with ourselves — what we do with ourselves to overcome those. And that’s why I tell people if you’re going to look at my story — or our story as I like to refer to it — look at it that these two individuals, who were not supposed to come out from underneath these immense towers, but they did. And they’ve been able to somehow, someway find happiness.”
His message turns out to be one that many of those who meet him need to hear. After his talk, they approach him to tell him about their “own World Trade Center.” He offers a hug and a supportive word.
As Jimeno said to me, “I want to teach people today that no matter what your World Trade Center is, you can learn to live with that and you can live a good life.”
To me, after years of studying the wreckage and tragedy of 9/11, it’s the most hopeful and inspiring story from that day I’ve ever found.