If you ever saw the Christopher Award-winning Oliver Stone film “World Trade Center,” you’re familiar with the story of Will Jimeno. Will was a Port Authority police officer who arrived at the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, to help evacuate people from the buildings after the planes hit.
But Will, his sergeant, John McLoughlin, and his colleague, Dom Pezzulo, wound up buried alive in the rubble when the North Tower collapsed. Dom didn’t survive, and Will was ready to give up hope of being rescued until a vision of Jesus re-energized his spirit. Will is now sharing his story of survival, faith, and post-traumatic stress in the memoir “Sunrise Through the Darkness: A Survivor’s Account of Learning to Live Again Beyond 9/11.” We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below).
Recalling the scene at the World Trade Center the morning of 9/11, Will said, “It looked like Armageddon, like a warzone, something that I, as an American who has served in the military, never thought I would see on our own soil. I saw a lot of death, a lot of destruction. But at the same time, 20 years later, what I want people to remember is that what I saw the most that day was love. I saw people, total strangers, helping each other. Didn’t matter what color their skin was, what their religion was, where they came from. People actually came together.”
When the North Tower collapsed, burying the three PAPD officers 20 feet underground, Will notes the sound was like that of “a million freight trains…loud and devastating and angry.”
Will continued, “The darkest point for me was when – after having been crushed and burned, been shot at because a weapon went off in the hole we were buried in, lost three teammates and after many, many hours of suffering being buried alive – I wanted to give up. I wanted to die, and I made my peace with God. I said, ‘God, thank You for 33 great years…Thank You for six years with my beautiful wife, Allison, four years with my little girl, Bianca.’ My wife was seven months pregnant, and I said, ‘God, you know I’m going to miss that, but I’m going to ask you for two favors.’ Because I felt everybody that day was going to go to heaven because these cowards attacked innocent people who were just trying to make better lives for their families. I said, ‘God, when we get to heaven, just somehow, some way, allow me to see my daughter be born.’ And the second request was, ‘Can I have some water?’ As silly as that sounds, I was caked in concrete for so many hours, I was so thirsty. I gave up, I basically closed my eyes and had committed to dying. I just wanted the pain to be over.”
But something happened when the former altar boy at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Hackensack, New Jersey, closed his eyes and began drifting off. Will saw “a person walking toward me with a glowing white robe, no face, brown hair to the shoulder. Over his left shoulder in the distance is a pond or a lake with tranquil trees around it. Over his right shoulder is a tall, endless sea of grass. This peace came over me…What does he have in his hands? A bottle of water. I knew at that point it was Jesus…I woke up out of that vision, that dream, or whatever you want to call it with a resurgence of fighting and hope. I made a decision that if I died, I was going to die trying because if I gave up, I would have given up on my sergeant who was buried further back. I was closer to this hole where people could hear me yell. I would have given up on fighting for my family. I would have given up on my country. But most of all, I would have given up on myself because God doesn’t want us to die. He wants us to do as much as we can to live in this world. That’s why it’s a gift, life is a gift.”
Will and Sgt. McLoughlin received a second chance at the gift of life after former Marines Jason Thomas and Dave Karnes heard Jimeno’s shouts for help. Their rescue was slow and dangerous because one wrong move could have brought more of the rubble down upon them. But in the end, thanks to additional help from Detective Scott Strauss and his team at the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit, both men were saved.
In the hospital immediately afterwards, Will almost died several times. His recovery was grueling and painful. But slowly, over time, his physical wounds healed with intense rehabilitation – and he was happy to see his daughter, Olivia, born on his birthday, November 26th, that same year. Will’s mental and emotional scars, however, were another story because he didn’t realize he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or the effect it was having on his family.
Will said, “I would get angry about things, I would blow up easy. I realize today, I was angry about what happened. I was angry about not being able to help my teammates that didn’t make it, about my physical and mental struggles. But the pivotal point for me was the following year…I couldn’t find the remote control to the TV, and I would get very frustrated, very angry. And this particular night…I started yelling, and here I have a newborn baby there, my wife, who has been standing by my side…my four-year-old little girl was still there. And here I’m yelling. I remember just getting so frustrated, I picked up a shoe and I was going to throw it at Allison. I’ve never lifted my hand to a woman. Literally, as I was winding up to throw the shoe right at her head, I caught myself. I said, ‘Will, who are you? This is not who you are.’
“I remember dropping the shoe,” continued Will, “and I was embarrassed. I got in my truck, went up to the country, and sat in the car…At that moment, I started thinking, I know that people who are drug abusers, physical abusers, alcoholics, sometimes their children grow up to be those people. At that moment, I prayed to God to help me. I made a decision that I was going to go seek help, because if I wasn’t a good father, if I wasn’t a good husband, a good example, my children would probably grow up to be something that I didn’t want them to be and, in a way, the terrorists, the cowards, would have, through me, touched another generation. So I came home, I went upstairs. I went into my daughter’s room, Bianca, and I said, ‘Does daddy yell a lot?’ She goes, ‘Yeah, Daddy. Sometimes you scare me.’ At that point, I said, ‘I have to do something.'”
It took Will several tries before he found a therapist he could connect with. Her name was Debbie Mandell, and she had counseled a lot of 9/11 rescue workers. She told him, “You know what, Will, this is something you’re not going to cure. This is something you have to learn to live with.” (Sadly, Debbie has since passed away from a 9/11-related illness.)
Will said, “That was the big, pivotal point for me…Through her advice, the support from my wife, my family, and most of all myself – because you have to want to try to get better – I started learning there’s things that trigger me…I wasn’t mentally ill, but I had mental struggles. I want people to understand that when people talk about mental issues, there are people who are mentally ill, but most of us have mental struggles. It doesn’t have to be to the point of warfare. It could be simply just the stresses of life: working two jobs, having a child that’s sick, dealing with cancer, COVID, the list goes on…I started realizing when I start getting a bit upset about something, I started learning how to breathe. I started learning how to go walk, learning to do physical activity, to allow that negative energy out. It’s something I live with. I tell people, ‘The day I get rid of post-traumatic stress disorder or am done dealing with 9/11, is the day they bury me.'”
Even with counseling, Will still struggled with survivor’s guilt, wondering why he was alive when so many others didn’t make it. He credits the widow of a New York City Firefighter who died on 9/11 with giving him a valuable piece of advice.
She told him, “Do something for me, my husband, your family, and all those we lost. I heard you had a beautiful little girl named Olivia. Do what the middle of your daughter’s name says: Live.”
Will noted, “I owe it to all those we lost that day, to my teammates, and I owe it to God and Jesus, because they gave me a second lease on life. I’m going to take that, I’m going to run with it. Every single day I work from the darkness to the sunlight because I owe it to all those that love me, I owe it to myself, and I owe it to God who gave me another chance to live every single day.”
In addition to “Sunrise Through the Darkness,” Will also shares his story in a children’s book titled “Immigrant, American, Survivor.” He explained, “I’m very proud of it because [it] tells my story coming here at two years old from Barranquilla, Columbia as an immigrant and how I was inspired by my mom and my dad to love this country and all the opportunities this country of the United States gives us. My love of becoming a police officer, trials and tribulations that children can identify with. But most importantly is the message to never give up. I go into my military service, into how long it took me to become a police officer and reach that dream. But ultimately I teach them about September 11th in a good way. We show the heroism of our team, what happened that day, how I recovered…I want to teach children from throughout the world, never give up. No matter what your dreams are, no matter what obstacles you have, never give up.”
Will ultimately hopes his story inspires other people to successfully maneuver their own paths through darkness. He concluded, “[I remind] myself to have faith, hope and love….So if you’re a person who’s actually dealing with the darkness, understand you have to dig down deep inside of yourself and push yourself, motivate yourself. Yes, it’s great to have other people around you to motivate you, but it starts with you. Take it from somebody who was in a very dark place. It took me to start leading my way out of the darkness to my sunrise. Again, I am no different than you. I feel pain like you, I cry like you, I’m happy like you, I’m a human being like you. I don’t feel that I’m any different than anybody else. If I’m able to reach my sunrise, you should be able to reach yours as well.”
(To listen to my full interview with Will Jimeno, click the podcast link):