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.
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."
But Jimeno's wife, Allison, was seven months pregnant with the couple's second daughter. The only thing he regretted, he told God, was "that I would never get to meet my new baby girl."
Time silently ticked away. McLoughlin sometimes moaned in agony. Jimeno's entire torso swelled and his thirst became unbearable.
Then, "I saw a figure coming to me," Jimeno said. "He wore a glowing white robe and a rope belt. I couldn't see His face, but I knew it was Jesus." Over the figure's left shoulder, he says, he saw an endless sea of waving tall grass and over the right shoulder, a lake. "I remember asking Jesus, 'If I get to heaven, can I have some water?'"
The figure, he says, was holding a bottle of it.
In the movie World Trade Center, the man in the vision reaches out and offers Jimeno the water. That didn't happen, Jimeno told WORLD, but he says the vision gave him something more important: hope.
"I had this resurgence of optimism, this resurgence of the will to fight." He didn't share with McLoughlin what he had seen, but told him, "We're going to get out of this hellhole."
Then, at about 8 p.m., the men heard a voice: "U.S. Marines! Can anybody hear us?"
Jimeno thanked God again.
He's still thanking Him. Not only for his rescue-three hours later, NYPD rescuers lifted Jimeno from the pit and rescued McLoughlin eight hours after that-but also for reinforcing his conviction that a positive outlook is essential. It is important to grieve, he said. But it is also important to remember the heroism, unity, and compassion poured out in the days that followed 9/11.
"That was one of the darkest days in world history," Jimeno said. "If we don't look at the positives that remain, we give the evil people who attacked us a victory. We need to show our children how to recover from tragedy, how to pick up the pieces."
For Jimeno, that included clarifying his priorities. "Today, I try to take time to be a better husband and father. When my little daughter, the one I wasn't supposed to see, says, 'Hey dad, I want to show you something,' sometimes I want to keep watching the soccer game on TV."
But he can always record the soccer game and watch it later, he said: "I can't get back those 10 seconds with my little girl."