September 11, 2021
This article first appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2003 issue of Bowhunter Magazine. Police officer and bowhunter Will Jimeno shares an eyewitness story of the 9/11 horrors and his own incredible struggle for survival beneath tons of Twin Tower debris.
Five of us grabbed our air packs and helmets and other gear and headed out. We got on the elevator and went down to the Mall Level and made our way across toward Tower Two. As we turned into a connecting corridor leading to Tower One, we suddenly heard a terrible rumbling noise. I looked out onto the street and saw a fireball the size of my house hit the pavement. Then everything around us started shaking. “Run!” Sarge yelled. “Run to the left!”
Will Jimeno almost went deer hunting the morning of that terrible Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Wednesday and Thursday were scheduled off-work days for the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) office. And if he were to take a personal day on Tuesday, Will would have three glorious midweek days to bowhunt New Jersey whitetails. He was truly tempted.
A special antlerless season had just opened. Over the weekend he and a buddy had shared an enjoyable bowhunt at the Whittingham Wildlife Management Area in Sussex County and Will already was itching to be back into the deer woods. But looking ahead to the fall rut, he finally opted to save his p-day for later in the bow season. So early that Tuesday morning Will left the Clifton, New Jersey, home he shared with his pregnant wife, Allison and young daughter, Bianca, and reported for duty as usual at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan.
We were running down a hallway between the Twin Towers. Dominick was first. I went second. Sarge was third. Antonio and Chris bought up the rear. As we ran, we held our helmets in place, the Scott Air Packs bouncing against our backs. I looked up when the lights on the ceiling began to flicker. That’s when the overhead concrete started to break apart and fall…
The PAPD is a bi-state agency serving New York and New Jersey with legal jurisdiction over various New York City transit stations, airports, bridges, and tunnels. Plus, the World Trade Center. Assigned for the day to Post 35 at the corner of 8th Ave. and 42nd St., Will joined up with two fellow PAPD officers. As the three men stood talking just before 8:45 a.m., a moving shadow darkened the sunlit intersection.
“It was a beautiful September morning,” Will remembers. “Not a cloud in the sky. Then this huge shadow flashed by. It covered the street. That immediately caught our attention. I wondered aloud, ‘Wow, what was that? A low-flying plane?’”
Scant moments later, at precisely 8:45 a.m., American Flight 11 hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Within minutes PAPD radios crackled with an urgent message ordering all officers to return to headquarters. Immediately!
“When we entered the Reserve Room — that’s the lunch area where we take duty breaks — I glanced over at the TV set and saw pictures of the Trade Center,” Will says. “The news report said that Tower One — the North Tower — had been hit by a passenger plane and was on fire. A sergeant immediately said, “those are terrorists!’ And in my heart I knew he was right. They were back.”
Ever since the ’93 bombing there had been cop talk that terrorists would someday return and try again to take out the WTC towers. Will knew a passenger jet simply could not make a mistake in midtown Manhattan and accidentally hit a skyscraper. No way!
Tearing his eyes from the televised images of flames and a rising black mushroom cloud, Will turned to find a telephone. “Allison was seven months pregnant at that time,” Will explains. “I always made it a point whenever there was a shooting or stabbing to let her know I was not involved. The city’s telephone lines were going crazy, but somehow I got through and told her a plane had just hit the Trade Center. I said I didn’t have any more details. I told her I was fine and not to worry.”
Suddenly the floor buckled and the ceiling collapsed, burying us in the hallway under a mountain of twisted steel and shattered concrete. I found myself pinned on my left side, trapped from the waist down. I was lying on my air pack, my right knee in the air with my right foot buried in a pile of rebar and concrete. Directly above me was a space about 24 inches high. Off to my right I could see a hole in the rubble where some daylight was filtering in. The air was full of dust and smoke. The lower half of my body felt as if it had been crushed. I was in considerable pain…
“They’d commandeered a bus and our Command Office was picking 20 officers to report to the World Trade Center,” Will recalls. “I told Allison I had to go, hung up, and fell in behind the CO. I’d graduated from the PAPD Academy the previous January. That’s where I received my training as a police officer, firefighter, and medical technician. Honestly, I’d always wondered exactly how I’d respond when that first real emergency call came in. There was no hesitation whatsoever. This was what I had trained to do — to protect and serve. I simply jumped on that bus.”
During the short 5-minute drive, unknown to Will and his fellow officers, a second jet — United Flight 175 — struck the WTC South Tower at exactly 9:03. The crash showered the surrounding area with more fiery detritus. And as the vehicle drew closer to the littered streetscape near the Trade Center, an eerie silence fell over its stunned passengers.
The bus rolled to a stop amid the rubble two full blocks from the WTC. As one by one the solemn police officers stepped down into what appeared to be a surreal war zone, each paused to stare up at the sunlit towers. An ugly, smoking hole yawned in the upper stories of Tower One; a corner of its twin structure was blossoming fire and rolling smoke.
“My God!” one senior officer said suddenly. “They’re jumping.”
Will’s eyes involuntarily rolled upward to where people were leaping out into space. Falling from the towers’ upper stories. Singly. In pairs. A few were holding hands. All seemed to be seeking escape from the unimaginable inferno created by burning jet fuel, choosing their own way of dying. Then his gaze locked on one light-haired man, clad in a pastel golf shirt and brown trousers. He had flung himself far out from the building and was falling as if reclining on a bed. Will watched him all the way down.
“When he vanished behind a building, I knew he was gone. That was somebody’s father. Somebody’s son,” Will says quietly, remembering. “I told the guys, ‘Geez, we gotta do something.’”
Still, for a long time, nobody moved. Tears streaked the upturned faces of several officers as more bodies and debris hurtled down. The Sgt. John McLoughlin came running up to the group. He said, “I need three volunteers who know how to use Scott Air Packs.”
Sgt. McLoughlin’s words broke the spell. Will and two Academy classmates — Antonio “A-Rod’ Rodrigues and Dominick Pezzulo — stepped forward.
“Sarge, we just graduated from the Academy,” Will said. “We know how to use the packs.”
“Come on then,” Sarge called, already turning away. “We have to get in there. We have to help those people.”
The four men sprinted forward, the rubble-littered street beneath their feet gray with powder.
Sarge was completely buried under hallway rubble, maybe 15 feet behind me. But after a time, I heard him calling out for us to sound off. “Jimeno!” I answered. “Pezzulo!” Dominick shouted from just ahead of me. That was it. Suddenly I heard myself yelling, “A-Rod! Chris!” Over and over. I kept calling their names, but there was no response. Only silence. “Don,” I finally said. “They’re not answering. I don’t think the made it.” A moment later I heard Dom’s Bronx-accented voice saying, “Willie, I think Chris and Antonio are in a better place.”
The four men ran toward nearby Building 5 where their rescue gear was stored. Will was glad to be following Sgt. McLoughlin, a quiet and respected officer he recognized from Bus Terminal duty. Will knew that Sarge served on the Emergency Service Unit — the PAPD equivalent to the police SWAT team. He also recalled that Sarge had helped set up new security systems and procedures at the World Trade Center after the ’93 bombings. Sarge taught special rescue squads how to rappel down WTC elevator shafts in emergency situations like this, and he knew the insides of the North and South Towers like the layout of his own house. If Will could choose to follow one man into the burning towers, it would be Sgt. John McLoughlin.
As they reached Building 5’s doorway, Sarge said, “Will, you take everyone’s hats, clubs, and memo books to the Suburban parked around the corner.” Will quickly collected the equipment, ran around the building — and stopped short. A slab of concrete the size of a dining room table had fallen and smashed the front half of the PAPD’s big Chevy, destroying it. Stunned, will cautiously approached the ruined vehicle and tossed the gear into an empty seat. Hustling back to rejoin his squad, he glanced over toward Tower Two, where hundreds of people were running. He saw a handful of police officers trying to help injured civilian workers out of the burning building. For the first time that day Will felt an icy knot spreading in his chest.
“Sure I was scared,” Will readily admits. “So was everyone else. But we managed to remain calm and professional. Each of the guys had a determined look in his eyes. That’s something I’ll always remember and be proud of. My own goal was simple: get up there, grab someone, and bring them out. Then do it again. I’ll bet that’s exactly the same thing the other guys were thinking.”
Donning their safety gear, Will said to Dominick, “You and me, Don. Let Sarge and Antonio team up. We need to look after each other.”
Domonic Pezzulo merely nodded. Dom, his wife, and two youngsters lived in the Bronx. Will knew that Dom loved the outdoors, too. Especially fishing. He’d turned down a chance to take a personal day on September 11 and go boating with an angler friend. He planned to take a day off later in the week to go fishing with his young son.
When Will pulled on his leather gloves, Antonio looked over and shook his head. “Will, don’t wear those gloves,” he said. “If we get near that fire, they’ll melt on your skin.”
Moments later the four officers were moving down onto Building 5’s Mall Level between the two towers. Will was pushing a canvas mail cart containing extra oxygen tanks for the team and any people they might save. There, the squad bumped into officer Chris Amoroso. Chris had been helping rescue people from Tower Two. He’d been headed down to the precinct’s equipment closet to retrieve fresh air tanks.
“I knew Chris well,” Will says. “We used to work together under the same command unit at the Bus Terminal. When we met in the Mall hallway, Chris looked over at me and we hugged each other. He immediately felt comfortable joining us, so the five of us made our way on toward the Building 5 elevators.”
When the rescue team reached an area directly in front of Tower Two, Antonio said he’d take over the equipment cart Will had pushed from Building 5. Turning left into the corridor leading across to Tower One, the men encountered a paramedic who asked if he should join them. “Sarge said no, that he should hook up with some other police or fire team. We were going up alone.”
The team moved ahead. Scant minutes passed. Suddenly the hallway began to shudder as a terrible deafening roar swept over them. That’s when Will saw the giant fireball explode in the street. That’s when Sarge shouted, “Run! Run to the left!”
Seconds later the team’s entire world began to crumble. It was precisely 9:59 a.m. The Trade Center’s South Tower had just collapsed.
In my heart I knew Chris and Antonio were dead. Sarge was totally buried and couldn’t see anything. He was groaning in pain. Trying to lift his spirits, I called out, “Sarge, I can’t see the sky but there’s light coming in here. I know we’re close to outside. We’re going to get out of here.” Sarge finally asked if Dom or I could somehow dig ourselves free. I said, “No, I’m really pinned.” Dom called over that he was trying. Since my watch was broken, I had no idea how much time elapsed. But minutes later, like some vision rising from the hallway rubble, Dom clawed his way free and crawled into the open.
“Thank God, Dominick!” Will shouted. For the first time since the hallway caved in, Will actually believed that he, Dom, and Sarge might somehow get out alive.
Dom was torn with indecision. Should he try to climb up through the tangled rubble and get help or stay below and try to free his trapped friend and sergeant? Sarge settled the matter, urging Dom to try to get Will out. Maybe then the two officers could dig him free.
Dom bent down, crouched over, and moved into the small space beside Will. A big, strong man, he started tearing at the compacted concrete with his bare hands. Long minutes dragged by. Finally Dom said “Willie, I can’t get this stuff off you.”
“Don’t leave me, Dom,” Will pleaded, fighting to control a rising panic. “Keep trying. Please keep trying.”
Dom nodded and continued digging, seeking a fingerhold, any weakness in the mass of compressed rubble. But it was no use.
At exactly 10:20 a.m., an immense shuddering rumble shook the buried corridor. It was the North Tower collapsing into itself.
Will quickly crossed himself, asking God to care for Allison and Bianca. Sarge screamed in agony when his concrete tomb shifted as tons of new tower rubble slid over the buried hallway. Dom crabbed away into the open space illuminated by dusty daylight filtering down through the jumble of steel and broken cement.
As the shuddering roar grew, swirling dust and a hailstorm of small cement chunks clattered down through the jumble of bent steel and cracked cement. Then a slab of fractured concrete smashed through the overhead hole, slamming into Dom and driving him down. Will heard his friend cry out, then only silence amid the smothering dust that filled the wrecked hallway.
Dom was a friend, a real gentleman. He knew he was hurt bad but he still managed to crack a joke, asking Sarge if he could take a three-eight. That’s police code for a duty break. He even laughed but then choked on the blood in his mouth. “Will,” Dom finally said, “don’t forget that I tried to get you out. I tried to save you guys.” I promised I wouldn’t forget. Dom pulled his sidearm, pointed it out of the hole, and fired a single shot. It was as if he were saying, “Hey, we’re down here! Someone help us!” Then Dom died.
Shocked by the sudden loss of his friend and in increasing pain from the weight crushing his pinned legs, Will wondered what else this hellish day could possibly offer. About then the first fireballs tumbled into the hole, filling his cramped space with searing heat and a radiant flickering light. That was the single moment Will admits that he almost gave up all hope. Please, God, he fervently prayed, don’t let us burn to death!
“God truly was looking down on Sarge and me,” Will says. “Somehow the gaps in the rubble pinning us were just right to create a kind of cross ventilation. One by one the fireballs burned down and sputtered out. It was hot and smoky and more fireballs kept falling in all around us, but I finally stopped working about us burning up.
“I also took time to make my peace with God, just in case. I thanked Him for 33 great years and for letting me become a police officer. I asked Him to look after Allison and my children. I said if I had to die here, while trying to help other people, that was okay. I just wanted my family to be proud of me. I knew someday we’d be reunited in Heaven. The only thing that really hurt was knowing if I died I’d never see or hold my new baby.”
Shaking off that dispiriting thought, Will urged Sarge to keep trying his static-filled radio, to let people know that they were trapped but alive. Sarge said, “Will, they can’t send anybody in to get us now. It’s just too unstable. They’ll be here when they can.”
“I’ve always been optimistic,” Will says. “When bowhunting I’ve stood on stand from dawn to dusk. I simply keep telling myself I’m going to eventually see a deer. If I’m patient, it’ll happen sooner or later. I know it will. That’s what I had to believe about someone coming and rescuing us. All I needed was to be patient.” Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Time passed but seemingly stood still. Will’s horribly constricted world consisted of jagged concrete, sifting dust, smoke, and twisted or broken pipes and steel beams. Of welcome semi-darkness and menacing fireballs. Of growing thirst and constant pain. Will’s grimy face contorted each time Sarge’s agonized groans filled the tiny space. Sometimes his own incredible anguish caused him to cry out in desperation, shouting for help.
After the echo of his cries died unanswered. Will used his handcuffs, his magazine clip, his pistol butt to chip away at the mass of debris covering his crushed legs. But his hands had become increasingly swollen. His entire torso was slowly starting to bloat, a reaction to his outrageous injuries. Pausing to rest, Will in turn laid aside and lost his improvised chipping tool among the surrounding rubble. No matter. The cement covering his legs was unyielding. Will’s struggles only left him drained.
I’m not sure what happened. I may have passed out. Anyway, I had a vision. I looked up and saw Jesus coming toward me. He had long brown hair and was wearing a white robe that glowed. Behind Jesus was a field of tall grass blowing in the wind. Over His left shoulder was a bottle of clear, cold water. And I remember thinking, “Look at that. I’ve got water coming. I’m going to get a drink.” Then I woke up, and I felt energized. I said, “Sarge, we’re going to make it out of this place!”
“I kept yelling,” Will remembers. “I’d yell ‘8-13!’ which means officer needs assistance. I kept hollering 8-13 over and over.”
But no one came. More fireballs rolled into the hole, yet by this time Will had grown used to them. At least he no longer worried about being burned.
Crack! A bullet suddenly whizzed by Will’s face and ricocheted off the concrete rubble!
“Sarge!” Will screamed, ducking and covering his head with his arms. “We’re being shot at!”
Crack! Crack! More bullets whined past. A seemingly endless string of shots kicked up sprays of gray dust and stinging concrete fragments. In all, 15 rounds zinged past Will in a matter of seconds. Finally, a deafening hush filled the buried hallway.
Will’s mind was racing, his heart pounding. What could have happened? Were we at war? Where were the shots…? Suddenly Will knew. Dom’s semiautomatic pistol, overheated by the falling fireballs, finally had discharged, emptying its entire clip — 15 rounds of 9mm Black Talon bullets — into the collapsed corridor. Miraculously, none of the bullets or ricocheting fragments had struck him. As his thudding heartbeat began to slow, Will muttered yet another prayer of thanks for being spared.
“At that point I said, ‘Will, you’re definitely going to make it. You’ve been crushed, almost burned up — and now shot at. If none of those things killed you, you simply aren’t meant to die today.’
“Patience,” Will says. “I knew that’s what I needed, just like on a deer stand. I told myself to make believe I was bowhunting. You know the peace you enjoy in the woods always makes the hours pass faster. Just imagine you’re hunting.”
More long hours dragged by. Will stubbornly maintained his focus and optimism. From time to time he shouted for help and clanged on an overhead pipe to attract attention. When his suffering became unbearable, he’d recall a line from some action movie — “Pain is your friend” — and force himself to laugh out loud. Again and again, Will laughed and thought, I’m alive! I can feel the pain! I’m going to make it!
“I kept talking with Sarge, too,” Will says. “We fed off each other, keeping our minds busy talking about our families. I told him about Allison and my daughter and the new baby coming. He told me about his wife and four kids. That really kept us going. That helped us forget our pain.”
Finally, about 8 p.m., Will imagined hearing voices in the distance. He held his breath and listened, straining to determine if the voice was real or simply wishful thinking.
“I’ve always had good hearing,” Will explains. “When I’m bowhunting, I can hear a deer walking a long way away. And this time I could make out a faint voice calling, ‘U.S. Marines. Can anybody hear us?’ I started yelling and yelling and yelling and thanking God for sparing Sarge and me. Minutes later three guys were there, reassuring us that help was on the way.”
Author’s Note: Risking their lives working in cramped space and unstable debris, NYPD Emergency Service Unit rescue teams eventually freed Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin. Will was carried to the surface at 11 p.m. on September 11. Sarge was hoisted from the rubble at 7 a.m. on September 12. Ambulances sped the injured officers to Bellevue Hospital. These two policemen were the only PAPD survivors pulled from the WTC ruins. Thirty-seven follow officers died — along with 343 brave FDNY firefighters — when the two towers collapsed.
About Police Officer Will Jimeno
PAPD Officer Will Jimeno has three special loves: his family, his job, and bowhunting. Mention any of these passions to Will and you can’t mistake the enthusiastic sincerity in his voice when he responds. Here, you quickly realize, is a man who unashamedly expressed his heartfelt emotions about those people and pursuits and pastimes that mean the most to him. Especially now. Especially after September 11, 2001.
To understand Will Jimeno, start in Columbia, South America, where he was born not quite 3½ decades ago. Next, follow him and his family to America, where the working-class parents — began their new life in a land of unfamiliar freedoms and unlimited promise. Then trace Will through grade and high school years in Hackensack, New Jersey — where this husky, athletic youngster excelled at football and soccer — and later demonstrated his special pride in having become an American citizen by joining the U.S. Navy soon after graduation. He served four years in the service of his adopted country, including active duty as a gunner’s mate on the USS Tripoli.
Returning home, Will studied law enforcement at a local community college while working part-time as a security guard, pursuing his childhood dream of becoming a police office.
“Why do you want to butt your nose in other people’s business?” his father would ask his only son. “You put yourself in other people’s business and you ask for trouble.”
“Dad, sometimes people need help,” Will would patiently explain, “and that’s when you gotta step forward. I’m not going to let people in trouble stay in trouble. If I can do something about it. Sometime the person in trouble could be a family member of mine, and I’d hope somebody else would do something to help them out.”
Then in 1993 Will met Allison Guardiano, “a great looking girl” who worked at the same department store where Will was part of the security detail. Their first date included a trip to a pistol range where Allison amazed Will by shooting an impressively tight group at 15 yards with his Beretta 92. It was the first time she’d fired a handgun. But that wasn’t the day’s only surprise.
“Have you ever shot a bow and arrow?” Allison asked.
Will admitted he hadn’t, explaining that he came from a culture where families typically didn’t participate in outdoor pursuits such as hunting, fishing, target shooting, or any related activities. Other than a couple of boyhood camping trips, Will noted that he’d rarely ventured off the New Jersey sidewalks. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that particular aspect of Will’s life was about to change. Forever.
Soon after Allison introduced Will to her father, Paul Guardiano, a veteran hunter, archer, and bowhunter, the threesome visited a local range where Paul and Allison impressed their guest by driving arrow after arrow into the kill area of each 3-D animal target scattered around the challenging course.
“Would you like to try shooting my bow?” Allison asked afterwards.
Will remembers that innocent question as another true turning point. “I said ‘Sure, okay,’ but I couldn’t even pull it back! This big ‘tough guy’ couldn’t even pull a woman’s bow! I was embarrassed, but I also was hooked on archery from that day on.”
Paul sold Will his first bow, an old Hoyt Spectra. That was the beginning of Will’s love affair with archery. Soon Will and Allison were spending lots of time together at the practice range. And with the approach of bow season, Will casually mentioned he’d like to join Allison and her dad in their deer woods. “Not yet,” Paul said, encouraging Will to be patient and explaining the ethical need to learn to shoot consistently well before attempting to take an animal with a bow and arrow.
Determined to improve, Will spend countless hours practicing as Allison coached her eager student. He soon developed the proper shooting form and his groups quickly tightened. “I had a blast,” Will recalls. And the following season Will and Allison, who were engaged to be married by this time, joined Paul at a 500-acre farm in Hunterdon County. On only his third hunting trip Will tagged his very first whitetail, an alfalfa-fed button buck, with a clean one-arrow kill.
“It was incredible,” Will says. “And it had little to do with killing the animal. That was part of it, of course, but what I remember was being alone in the quiet woods as the sun came up, hearing the birds and squirrels beginning to stir, and finally seeing a couple of deer coming my way. I’d never had an experience like that. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Will and Allison were married in August 1995. Will eventually finished his schooling and entered the PAPD Training Academy in 2000. He graduated and started work as a police office at the beginning of 2001, short months before the September attack.
During their years together Will and Allison had shared memorable deer seasons, bowhunting with Paul Guardiano and other friends. Today, despite Will’s severe injuries and Allison’s motherhood duties, the couple continues to share a passion for archery. Both shoot Mathews compounds, Beman carbon and Easton aluminum arrows, and Wasp heads. They’re convinced their 5-year-old daughter, Bianca, holds promise as a future archer. She’s already shooting an imaginary bow, imitating her parents’ correct shooting form. Younger sister Olivia — who was born a couple of months after 9/11 — is another future Jimeno family archer.
After Will’s close brush with death in the terrorist attack, it was the bow and arrow and a promise of future hunting seasons that kept his spirits up during the long, dark, and painful sessions of physical rehabilitation. After undergoing eight surgeries on his crushed legs — and accepting the fact that he must always wear a brace on his left leg because he no longer can pick up his foot — Will found peace of mind and comfort in a familiar routine.
“When I was at Kessler Rehab Center in West Orange, I started going stir crazy,” Will explains. “I asked my therapists if I could set up a target and shoot a bow. I knew I didn’t have the strength to handle my hunting bow, but I figured I could shoot a lightweight recurve. The folks at Kessler were really nice about it. They helped me put up a target, and I started flinging arrows each day from 15 to 20 yards away. They even took photos of me practicing from my wheelchair. It was really great physical and mental therapy.”
Will’s current goals? Spending time with his family during his recovery period. Returning to police work someday. And, of course, going bowhunting again. In the meantime, he attends public functions proudly representing the Port Authority Police Department. As a survivor of the 9/11 attack, he has made the rounds of several network television shows — from Today to Good Morning America — and shaken hands with President Bush, among other notables he’s met. Will continues to do everything possible to honor his fallen comrades and make certain that their sacrifice is never forgotten.
Given his personal and professional background, can anyone doubt Will’s total devotion to his family, job, and favorite hobby? Dedicated and sincere. That’s simply the kind of man — and American — Will Jimeno is.