Will Jimeno: Twin Towers survivor who had no broken bone now raises PTSD awareness
'It was like your worst nightmare times three million,' Will Jimeno said on the 20th anniversary of 9/11
On September 11, 2001, a wall from the collapsed World Trade Center crushed a rookie officer of the Port Authority of New York when he was stuck beneath the rubble of the fallen towers. His arm was burned and fellow cop Dominick Pezzulo laid dead beside him. But Will Jimeno didn’t break any bones, despite 220 stories of the World Trade Center falling on top of him. Weeks later, when he was recovering, his sister asked the doctors: “How many bones did he break?” they said, “None.”
"It was like your worst nightmare times three million," Jimeno told People magazine for the 20th anniversary of 9/11 profile. "I was so thirsty. And I closed my eyes and I wanted to die." And while Jimeno didn’t break any bones on 9/11, he still had scars, both physical and mental ones — and they remain on him two decades after the tragedy.
"I'm reminded about it every day," the 53-year-old told People magazine, "just the fact that I look at my wounds on my leg." Jimeno had to undergo multiple surgeries, resulting in many months of rehabilitation. His left foot doesn't work; he suffers from a muscular weakness or paralysis syndrome called foot drop. The injuries forced him to retire early in 2004. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
At 9.59 am, Jimeno’s team of five was in the hallway between the North and South Tower when they heard a boom, followed by a growing rumble. “Everything started shaking,” Jimeno recalled. “I looked back toward the lobby, and I saw a fireball the size of my house coming. Sergeant McLoughlin yelled, ‘Run!’ I said to myself... I saw Dominick run, he turned to the left, so I started to follow him. At that point, all I felt was my body go up in the air and get slammed.”
“We were getting pummeled with debris. I was trying to fight for my life,” Jimeno recalled. “As fast as this was happening, it ended.” Trapped amid the rubble, he began to call on his radio for help. "I remember Dominick backing up a little bit, and I said to him, ‘This is it. It’s over’,” Jimeno recalled. “It sounded like a humongous locomotive coming at us."
A piece of falling concrete hit Pezzulo and Jimeno saw him collapse. Pezzulo, who was bleeding told Jimeno, “Willy, I’m dying man.” Jimeno remembered, “I’m looking over at Dominick, and Dominick says, ‘Willy, don’t forget I died trying to save you guys.’ I said, ‘Dominick, I would never let anyone ever forget that.’ His last minutes — he struggled to take his firearm out of his holster. He pointed it up toward that hole in the rubble far over our heads. We had been yelling, ‘PAPD officers down!’ hoping someone would hear us. He pointed his firearm up in the air, to that hole, and fired his gun as a last-ditch effort for someone to hear us. Then, he slumped over and died.”
At one point, Jimeno said that he just wanted to give up and die. “I closed my eyes, and I made my peace with God,” he recalled. “I said, ‘If I reach Heaven, the only thing I’m going to ask for is a glass of water,’ because I was so thirsty and as crazy as it sounds, your mind works in mysterious ways. That’s all I asked for.” Hours of pain went by before two ex-marines, who set out on their own search-and-rescue mission, were walking on top of the treacherous rubble and calling out. Around 8 pm, Jimeno heard their call: “United States Marine Corps, can anybody hear us?”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Jimeno said. “I started yelling as loud as I could. ‘PAPD Officers down! PAPD officers down!’ And they kept saying, ‘Keep yelling, we hear you!’” The Marines began to try to locate Jimeno in the debris below with a flashlight. Once they did, the Marines shouted for others to help. Two officers arrived from the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit Truck One. Along with a civilian paramedic, they began the hours-long effort to free Jimeno. “For the next three hours, they worked on me,” Jimeno recalled. “It was very, very painful — they were able to free my right leg, and then it took a long time for them to try to get me from under this wall. They had to cut away my Scott Airpack. It was just a nightmare that night.”
Reportedly, at one point, they considered amputating Jimeno’s leg, but they had only a knife, and instead kept digging. Finally, Jimeno was freed around 11 pm, hoisted in a rescue basket up to the surface. “As they started pulling me out the gurney, up this hole, I remember looking around, and I said, ‘Where is everything?’ Because I could see the moon, and I could see smoke, but I couldn’t see the buildings. That’s when a firefighter said, ‘It’s all gone, kid.’ That’s the first time I cried that evening.” It took eight more hours to reach McLoughlin, who finally was freed around 7 am the following morning.
"Every day that I get up, I take a moment to thank God that I'm alive," he told twenty years later, "and I think about how I survived this." And he did survive. “One of the doctors mentioned that they had to flush my lungs because my lungs looked like I had smoked for 30 years; I hadn’t smoked a day in my life,” he wrote in his memoir, ‘Sunrise Through the Darkness’. He twice flatlined, nearly dying.
In the years that followed, as his physical condition improved, his mental state declined. Politico reported that the fun and easy-going Jimeno found his temper on a hair-trigger. While Jimeno still suffers from the traumatic memory of that fateful day, he says years of therapy, sharing his story and the unwavering support of his family has helped. He worked with psychologist Debbie Mandell to understand the triggers for his anger and the emotional trauma.
He now makes the rounds of rehab facilities, substance abuse programs, churches, and jails, as well as speaking to military groups and police academy classes. He speaks to a lot of elementary, middle, and high schools, and even colleges. At talks, Jimeno shares his story to help others who may feel shame over their own mental health struggles. "You're not alone and it's okay," he tells people. "You just need to talk to somebody to make sure you can address these issues and make sure that you do the best for your wellness… There's good in this world. That's what I want people to remember about September 11."
“It took years of screwing up,” he said, but he learned how to stop what he calls that “damn hamster wheel.” He wrote in his memoir, “I decided to use the anger in a way that I fought for my life and not against PTSD. Each time I faced up to a mistake, it felt like I was taking ownership of my life away from PTSD.”
“People always come up to me and they said, ‘Will, I can’t think of anything worse than the World Trade Center falling on you, 220 stories’,” he told Politico. “Whatever tragic event is happening in your life, at that moment, you have your own World Trade Center. It’s what you do with ourselves — what we do with ourselves to overcome those. And that’s why I tell people if you’re going to look at my story — or our story as I like to refer to it — look at it that these two individuals, who were not supposed to come out from underneath these immense towers, but they did. And they’ve been able to somehow, someway find happiness.”