The worst day of Will Jimeno’s life is memorialized on an entire wall in his New Jersey home and now serves as an inspiration.
On the shelf is his former Port Authority Police badge, framed above his black-silver service weapon and below a piece of concrete from the World Trade Center.
For 13 hours on Sept. 11, 2001, Jimeno lay buried under the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers.
The PA police officer, then a 33-year-old rookie, and his team arrived on the scene shortly after the first plane hit the North Tower. When the South Tower fell a little over an hour later, Jimeno and his colleague became trapped in what felt like an “earthquake.”
“It was raining concrete. It felt like a million freight trains coming down on us,” he told THE CITY in a recent interview reflecting on the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks that claimed more than 2,600 lives in New York.
Pinned 50 feet below ground by tons of debris, Jimeno struggled to stay alive. Three teammates were next to him and his sergeant, John McLoughlin.
Jimeno witnessed one after another die from their injuries until only he and McLoughlin were left. They kept talking to keep each other alert, in between pleading for help aloud and on their police radio.
“I wanted to die. I was exhausted. I was hurt,” Jimeno recalled. “We had lost three teammates... I just wanted it to end.”
After 13 hours, Jimeno heard the voices of two Marines who would eventually rescue him and McLoughlin.
A Feeling of ‘Failure’
Jimeno recalls the moment he rose from under the rubble.
“I remember looking up and I see the moon. I see the sky. I see a lot of smoke, but I don’t see the buildings. I said, ‘Where is everything?’ And a firefighter said: ‘It’s all gone.’ That’s the first time I cried that night. I didn’t cry when I got hurt, I didn’t cry when the guys died. I cried because I felt like we failed.”
Jimeno said he couldn’t let that thought go in the years following.
Coming out of the hospital weeks after 9/11, Jimeno was still in a wheelchair. His hands had swollen to three times normal size, he was suffering from compartment syndrome and had undergone multiple surgeries.
One great wish from his time in the rubble did come true: He was able to attend the birth of his second daughter, Olivia, who arrived on his birthday that November. “She was my birthday present and my happiness,” Jimeno said.
But he also harbored sadness and anger. For years, he often didn’t realize when or why he was lashing out.
“I had outbursts,” he recalled. “One time I got mad because I couldn’t find the remote control.”
Then during an argument with his wife, Allison, he picked up a shoe. He had never done anything violent to a woman before, Jimeno says, but at that moment he wanted to throw the shoe at her.
“But I caught myself and I said, ‘Well, this is not who you are. What’s going on?’ I remember dropping the shoe and I was embarrassed,” he said. “I got in my truck, I went up to the countryside and I sat and I thought.”
This was the moment, he says, when he realized he had a problem.
When he went home that night he talked to his oldest daughter, Bianca.
“She goes, ‘Yes, Daddy, sometimes you scare me,’” he recalled
‘Don’t Let Fear Ruin Your Life’
He decided to seek help. Doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Probably before 2010, I had survivor’s guilt,” said Jimeno, whose story was featured in a 2006 Oliver Stone movie. “There were tough days and I didn’t feel I deserved to be alive. You know, my friends were dead. So many people lost their loved ones. Why am I alive?”
There were days when he thought about taking his own life, he said. Just a few weeks ago, he published a book with a psychologist Michael Moats, “Sunrise Through the Darkness,” in which he reflects on that time.
Jimeno started seeing a department therapist and also met with a psychologist through his union.
But it took a third, private, therapist to fully open his eyes, he recalled: “She said, ‘Will, you’re never going to cure PTSD. You learn. You have to learn how to live with it. And it clicked. OK, I realize this.”
Today, Jimeno wears a brace on his leg and he can’t do everything he used to before being injured. There are days where his leg just doesn’t work, especially in winter, he said.
“You have to accept that when life changes things, you have to adapt. And it took me a long time,” he said.
Today, he finds joy in his family, being outdoors and practicing archery.
“Mentally, it’s an ongoing game,” he said. “The day I get rid of PTSD, the day I get rid of 9/11, is the day they bury me.”
Jimeno’s message 20 years after 9/11: “I want to inspire people to know that you can overcome whatever tragedy you have.”
“I tell everybody this,” Jimeno said. “The days you have on this earth is not as much as you think it is. So do something good. Don’t let fear ruin your life. Make sure you do the most for you and those you love.”