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Purpose-driven life

Cinema | Five years later, a survivor of the Twin Towers' collapse-and real-life hero of the new movie World Trade Center-sees each day as an opportunity to "do right"

Issue: "Help on the inside," Aug. 12, 2006

When Will Jimeno thinks of the day he almost died, he doesn't envision the great, ominous shadow he saw flash over the intersection of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street at 8:44 a.m., strangely low and in the shape of an airliner. He doesn't replay images of the men and women he saw leaping from the Twin Towers, so close he could tell what they were wearing. Neither does he dwell on the concrete avalanche that crushed three men beside him and nearly formed his tomb.

Instead, five years later, he dwells on heroes. "I saw civilians filing calmly out of the [Tower Two] concourse," said Jimeno, a New York Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) rescuer portrayed by Michael Peña in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (see page 8). "Two gentlemen were helping a lady with blonde hair. She had a skirt on and her leg was bleeding profusely. They could've just dropped this lady and let somebody else save her, but they didn't. If that isn't heroism, I don't know what is."

Jimeno and PAPD officer John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage in the PG-13 movie) were the last two people rescued from the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Thirty-seven fellow officers died that day, along with 343 firefighters and paramedics. For Jimeno, the experience crystallized his concept of life as a brief, divinely appointed span laden with purpose.

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Even if you live to be 90, he told WORLD, that's only a little over 32,000 days to live: "It's not that many. You have to do good and do right with the small period you have in between."

The son of Colombian immigrants, Jimeno was raised Roman Catholic and attended St. Francis of Assisi, a parochial school in Hackensack, N.J. A staunch family man and father of two, he speaks admiringly of his parents' work ethic and the fact that they raised their children in a Christian moral tradition. As a young man, Jimeno dreamed of becoming a police officer. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was 33 years old and had graduated from the PAPD academy just nine months before.

The World Trade Center fell under the authority of PAPD, whose officers are trained in law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medical response. Jimeno was among a crew of 20 PAPD officers dispatched from a New York bus terminal to the Twin Towers. Once on-scene, they streamed quickly out of the bus only to freeze, horrified by the sight of people leaping, alone and in pairs, from the flaming heights of Tower 1. Jimeno remembers watching one man, clad in a golf shirt and brown pants, fall all the way down.

McLoughlin ran up to the group and jarred them back to action. "I need three volunteers who know how to use Scott Air Packs," he said. Jimeno and two academy classmates, Antonio Rodrigues and Dominick Pezzulo, quickly ponied up. McLoughlin, who had set up WTC security procedures after the '93 bombing, was a respected veteran and the PAPD equivalent of a SWAT officer. "That's why I had no problem following him in," Jimeno said.

The team of four headed into Building 5, Jimeno pushing a cart loaded with extra air tanks down to the mall level between the Twin Towers. There, they picked up a fifth man, PAPD officer Chris Amoroso.

The team moved ahead, through a corridor that led across the mall to Tower One. Suddenly, the walls began a violent shaking and a terrible roar filled the world.

"Run, run to the left!" McLoughlin yelled. The South Tower collapsed, burying the PAPD team in a torrent of concrete and twisted steel. Rodrigues and Amoroso were immediately silenced. Concrete rubble pinned Jimeno and McLoughlin, rendering them helpless. Pezzulo, nearest to Jimeno, tried desperately to free him until a huge concrete slab plunged through the ceiling. Pezzulo cried out and then was silent.

For the next 10 hours, Jimeno and McLoughlin fought through pain and thirst inside a cramped concrete tomb swirling with dust and smoke. Through two holes above him, Jimeno could see daylight. "8-13!" he cried at intervals, using the code that means officers need assistance. Fireballs hurtled down into the tiny space, and Jimeno prayed to God that he and McLoughlin wouldn't be burnt to death. Then: gunfire. Fifteen shots ricocheted around the chamber, as heat from the fireballs cooked off the ammo in Pezzulo's gun.

Incredibly, neither man was hit and Jimeno thanked God.

Jimeno and McLoughlin talked to each other, about their families, their kids, each man trying to boost the other's spirits. Still, time trickled like hourglass sand and, little by little, carried Jimeno's hope away. "We had been crushed, burnt, and shot at by then. I was exhausted. I had done everything as a police officer that I could do, and everything as a human being. I was at that point where I just knew I was going to die," he said. "I thought down there that it was wierd that if I died, I would be the same age as Jesus was when He died . . . I made my peace with God. I thanked Him for 33 great years, for my beautiful wife, my daughter Bianca, my family, my parents."

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