Editor’s Note: Many times we walk past giants and never see them. Such is the case with William Jimeno of New Jersey, one of only two men found alive after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001. As a first responder, he put his life on the line for others who didn’t survive. This Mossy Oak Pro Staffer and avid deer hunter has a story to tell that we all need to hear, remember and then draw courage from what happened.
Being buried alive was a terrible experience – both physically and mentally painful. I lost a lot of good friends and fellow officers when the Twin Towers of the WTC Center came crashing down on all of us. My sergeant and I were trapped 30-feet underground between the two towers. Both buildings had collapsed on us. The World Trade Center was connected by a mall. We were leaving 2 WTC (the South Tower) and headed for 1 WTC (the North Tower) when the first tower fell on top, burying us. When the second tower fell, we were buried even deeper and surrounded by concrete with one small area where we could bend over. The 4-foot hole narrowed down to a funnel where I was buried. I could see a small hole about 30-feet above me and my sergeant, John McLoughlin, who was about 15-feet behind and below me. I could hear him, but I couldn’t see him due to a huge slab of concrete between the two of us.
When my sergeant saw the first tower coming down, he had screamed for us to, “Run toward the elevator in Tower Two! If we can get into the elevator shaft, the walls of the elevator should deflect some of the debris from the explosion.” Later, my sergeant told me he thought the disaster was caused by a car bomb. I was buried in the hole for 13 hours, and my sergeant was buried for 22 hours. Down in the hole, I truly felt that this must be what hell was like. I was being crushed by a large slab of concrete on my left side and was constantly dodging fireballs that resulted from the fuel tanks rupturing on each of the planes that hit each tower. There were fires everywhere, and even underground we weren’t safe from the fire. Fireballs burned my arm.
One of my good friends and fellow officers, Dominick Pezzulo, was dead beside me after the Twin Towers collapsed on us on 9/11. After making the decision to stay in the hole with me and my sergeant, instead of seeking freedom by trying to climb out of the hole, Dominick had pulled out his service revolver and fired a round up through the hole above us in hopes that someone would see or hear us. His gun was on the ground beside him after he passed away. One of the fireballs landed on the gun, the revolver fired, and a bullet passed just above my head. I was 30-feet under the ground being crushed, burnt, shot at and about to die from compartment syndrome, which would cause your organs and muscles to start shutting down when you were being crushed. We knew that eventually compartment syndrome would kill us. Suffering through all this pain, both physical and mental, was a living hell. I just knew I was going to die, and I made my peace with God.
My mother and father had brought me from Columbia when I was 2-years old, and we were always told, “Be proud of where you’ve come from, but also realize where you are. We came to this country to live the American dream. So, we fly the American flag, you will learn English - the language of our new country – you will play by the rules of the United States, and you will serve this nation. We can’t go to another country and expect that country to change its rules, laws and regulations to accommodate us. The United States is now our country.” From a very-young age, my mother repeated those words to me and taught me those lessons. For that reason, when I was old enough, I joined the U.S. Navy and spent 4 years on the “USS Tripoli.” But even before I went in the navy, I wanted to be a cop and serve the people who had allowed me and my family to come to America. These thoughts were some of the ones going through my mind when I was down in the hole during 9/11. I didn’t believe that I would come out from under the rubble of the Twin Towers at the WTC. Remembering the lessons my mother had taught us and seeing and understanding that I had fulfilled my mother’s goals for me, I felt when I died, I would have died trying to help people. My mom’s lessons were important to me.
At 8:00 pm on 9/11, I could hear two people yelling above the hole where we were. Two Marine reservists and one civilian had been told not to come into the debris, but these brave men disobeyed those orders, and at the risk of their own lives, came looking for survivors. I started screaming as loud as I could, and these three guys finally found the hole where I was. Even after the New York City Police Department and its SWAT team arrived, I still didn’t believe I’d come out of the hole alive. Jason Thomas and Dave Carns came down into the hole, and I heard the words “The U.S. Marine Corps.” That’s when I started yelling. But even when they got to the hole and looked down, they couldn’t see me, since I was covered in cement dust and looked like a piece of cement. The civilian, Chuck Sereika, a paramedic, left the hole and returned to the police to say there was a survivor. Next Sereika brought Scott Strauss and Paddy McGee from the NYPD Emergency Services Units to the hole. Those men put their own lives in danger to climb down into the hole and rescue me, even with fire everywhere. The rescue took 3 hours. I was still pretty sure I was going to die - probably in the hospital. I never really thought I might survive my ordeal until I arrived at a rehab center several months later.