World Trade Center Rescue –
An Unlikely Hero
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center Fiction:
By Chuck Sereika & Joe Calderone
A Book Proposal
Copyright @ Chuck Sereika & Joe Calderone
My name is Charles Kristian Sereika but my family and friends have always called me Chuck. In the past the only people who called me ‘Charles’ were my teachers and employers but most recently it has been the judges presiding over my cases while glaring down at me with contempt from their risen benches in their tidy courtrooms. I am a criminal. My crime is that I am a Crack addict and an alcoholic. Prisons are overflowing with people, “non-violent drug-offenders”, just like me, so are many middle and upper class homes, offices, factories and churches. We are everywhere, people who were born with a gene and/or some sort of spiritual malady that predisposes us to chemical dependency. If you think you don’t know anyone with this problem you probably are turning a blind eye to someone near you, someone you work with, someone you love, who has the affliction. Lots of powerful people think they have the answer to the drug problem in America. I have been part of that problem for more than half of my life. I know I don’t have all the answers but I do have a story, a story that on 9-11 took a turn I never anticipated. In spite of myself and my many problems, I played a critical role in the rescue of Officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin of the Port Authority Police Department, the last two men pulled alive from the rubble of the World Trade Center.
Oliver Stone chronicled one version of the rescue in his film – World Trade Center. My character in the film – a paramedic with a lapsed license – came out of the shadows to help. This is the real story of that rescue from my view, a personal tale that began long before 9-11, a story of rescue and recovery, from the depths of my addiction to the journey that led me into a burning, smoking, 40-foot hole at the center of the Ground Zero rubble on the evening of 9-11 when I tried to begin saving myself by helping in the rescue of Officers Jimeno and McLoughlin. My story isn’t the official version. The official version, the one that Hollywood and City Hall embraced, gives much of the credit of that now famous rescue to the uniformed members of the NYPD and FDNY. And credit they do deserve. Without them, Jimeno and McLoughlin surely would have died in the hole. But before the FDNY and NYPD ever showed up that fateful night, I and a civilian accountant from Deloitte & Touche, David Karnes, who had served in United States Marines, were already deep in the hole, tending to Jimeno and digging him out. We had launched our own separate search and rescue missions and kept looking for survivors at a time when other first responders had been called off the pile due to the dangerous, unstable conditions of the debris field. No one would have been in the hole with Jimeno and McLoughlin if Dave Karnes had not found them.
I’m not looking for any medals or rewards or riches. I’m not waiting for the call from Oprah. I only hope my story will inspire others who have failed, failed repeatedly, failed miserably, to see that they can still get up and do something to save themselves and that often it is by helping others that we most effectively begin to save ourselves.
Millions of people and their loved ones struggle each day with addictions. This book, World Trade Center Rescue, will appeal to that audience and to a much broader one by telling a very personal story of one man’s struggle to overcome his own shortcomings and how he was able to step up to the challenge of 9-11 when his city needed him most. When a story of personal hardship is combined with the events of 9-11, one of the most historically significant moments of our time, the result is a powerful tale of redemption that will have a long shelf life and a wide readership. The recent success of nonfiction books about 9-11, including 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn and the 9-11 Commission Report, is clear evidence that World Trade Center Rescue has a market and will be success.
Chapter 1 – ‘Checking In’ – May, 2001 – Sierra Tucson
I gave up my life as a paramedic because I didn’t feel comfortable treating patients anymore. Although I had never used drugs or alcohol on the job or self administered the medication that was meant for my patients, I was coming to work more and more often when I should have stayed home and slept it off. I tried several geographic changes. I moved frequently in attempts to find a solution for my troubled life. Alaska, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida were just a few of the places where I went to seek a new life. Each time I found failure because each time I brought the problem along with me because the problem was me.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family, the son of an alcoholic mother, and I inherited a gene that made me predisposed to chemical dependency and I took that road to the bottom. Many of my friends and family had given up on me. To some extent, I had given up on myself.
I have done all of the things that are expected of an alcoholic and drug addict including but not limited to lying, cheating and stealing to support my habit and way of life. In the year prior to the attack on the World Trade Center, I was living in Delray Beach, Florida, staying sober on and off. I drove a taxicab on the overnight shift and was getting myself into more and more trouble. Delray Beach is located on the East Coast of Southern Florida and is a beautiful, well organized city. (One of my regular stops as a cabbie was the Homing Inn, just outside the city limits. I learned after 9-11 that several of the hijackers had used this small motel to plan their attack and were traveling back and forth to Lantana Airport where they were receiving flight training from unsuspecting flight training personnel. Only a few taxis worked the night shift in Delray, so it’s likely that I crossed paths with one or more of the hijackers during this time.)
My family tried repeatedly to get me to a rehab facility in Arizona. I canceled flight after flight that they had booked for me. Finally, in the summer of 2001, I got on a plane in West Palm Beach with every intention of staying sober and reporting to the Sierra Tucson rehabilitation facility but my addiction had different plans for me.
I arrived at the Tucson International Airport somewhat behind schedule. My wife had dropped me off at the Palm Beach International Airport three days earlier; sending me off with an embrace that we both knew would be our last. Our relationship had been on and off for the past five-years and things hadn’t been going well for either of us for quite awhile.
During what should have been a routine layover at the Cincinnati International Airport on my way to Tucson, I managed to accumulate four felony charges in a few hours, all of them drug-related. I had spent the last three days in a five-by-five Boone County cell with a small Mexican man who spoke absolutely no English. I was tired, worn out, and at the end of my rope. My addictions were consuming what little of myself I had left. I was desperate for change. I felt hopeless and alone. I had to be escorted from a jail cell in Boone County, Kentucky by a paid chemical dependency interventionist who had been flown out from New York City, hired by my family to make sure that I got to rehab. Bob Smith, the interventionist, smoothed things out in Kentucky by assuring the authorities there that I would return for court after he bailed me out of jail.
The ride from the airport to the Sierra Tucson facility lasted about 30 minutes. The facility is located outside of Tucson in a beautiful area surrounded by mountains. My personal belongings consisted of one bag of dirty clothes and little else. Entering the grounds I noticed a sign by the roadside that said “Expect a Miracle” and I laughed to myself. I had been to more than a dozen treatment centers in the past and had absolutely no hope of getting better at this one. I was greeted at the front desk by a receptionist. My new “friend,” Bob Smith, gave me a hug and he was off. I was admitted and spent the first several days in the medical stabilization unit. Sierra Tucson is a licensed as a mental health facility, which provides treatment for a lot more than just the chemically dependant and, during my 45 days there, I certainly witnessed some miracles. I was a 32-year-old, 215-lbs man with a shaven head, and was often angry and potentially dangerous. The other patients at the facility – mostly doctors, lawyers, and movie stars – steered clear of me. I don’t think that during the first week anyone except the staff and one patient said a single word to me.
Sierra Tucson provides treatment for basicly anything people can become addicted to and the full spectrum of mental disorders. My roommate, Ed, from a suburb of Phoenix, had an alcohol and marijuana problem. He was middle aged, married and had two children. Ed worked a normal job and had a normal life — except that he was either high or drunk from the early hours of the morning to late into the night. Ed’s wife wanted to save their marriage. To pay for the $1,200-a-day treatment, they mortgaged their home.
Ed and I became good friends and stayed in contact for several years after treatment. Since I had been to so many treatment centers in the past and because of the fact that I had not made the facility aware of my full history, I was put on an eating disorder track. I was to be treated for bulimia, chemical dependency, and depression. The counselor assigned to me quickly realized that I needed more than she could provide. She had seen something in me that I had so deeply hidden so many years before. She transferred me to a specialized trauma group and I may not have been alive today if it weren’t for that decisive move. In the trauma group, I met my new counselor, Dr. Jim Morris, who most certainly changed my life. He was the first man I learned to trust and who never once let me down. Dr. Morris ran one of the two trauma groups at that time. He is an expert in helping people survive and recover from sexual, physical, and emotional trauma. He stood by me when others wouldn’t and he became the first real male role model in my life.
Chapter 2 – ‘A Call for Help; Into the Hole’ – September 11, 2001 – Ground Zero –7 pm
After searching for about an hour on my own, I heard someone calling for help toward the center of the pile that would soon become known worldwide as Ground Zero. At this point, it was a field of twisted steel, crushed vehicles, flames, swirling paper, and six inches of white ash everywhere you walked. A rogue FDNY firefighter and I had just met up and had been searching together for about five minutes. We both started heading toward the call. Flames shot up more frequently as we moved toward the center. My new firefighter friend said the situation was becoming too dangerous. He had a wife and two children at home, so he turned and started to head out. I didn’t blame him. He urged me to do the same. I knew he was right. Paramedics are not trained to perform rescue missions. We are told to wait for the cops and firefighters to secure a disaster area first. But the way my life had been going, I figured that whoever was trapped probably deserved to be around more than I did. If today was my day, so be it. Alone again, I stopped for a moment to say a prayer and felt a strong spiritual presence around me. I asked God to help me do his will and to protect me. I was scared, alone and completely out of my comfort zone. I thought about turning around more than once but my fear of letting God and whoever needed help down drove me to continue on. Eventually, I reasoned, I would come upon a dozen or so rescue team members and the person calling for help. Maybe they needed a paramedic.
After coming around a large hill of rubble, I came instead upon a sole U.S. Marine, standing in middle of the burning pile. Staff Sergeant David Karnes looked at me as if the rescue team had finally arrived. I was it.
“I’m going to die here tonight,” I thought. “Where is everybody?”
How could I and Sgt. Karnes be the only ones on the pile, still looking for survivors? Where was the FDNY? Where was the NYPD? One lone U.S. Marine and a broken down paramedic. This couldn’t be right. Luckily, I didn’t have much time to think about all this. If I had, I probably would have gotten myself out of there.
“Over here,” Sgt. Karnes yelled. “There’s somebody down there.”
Sgt. Karnes led me down a hole about ten feet and stopped. He called out and, to my amazement, a voice called back. “Help me.”
We used our flashlights but couldn’t see the person who was trapped. “Stick your hand up if you can,” Sgt. Karnes yelled into the hole. After a few moments, a hand, covered in dust and dirt, barely visible, arose from a spot much deeper in the hole. I kept crawling down, around an elevator shaft, with Sgt. Karnes directly behind me. About 30 feet in, we discovered Port Authority police officer Will Jimeno who was trapped in the rubble almost up to his neck.
Chapter 3 – ‘Trying to Stay Sober’ – July, 2001 – Santa Fe, New Mexico
I walked out into the bright sunshine of the New Mexico summer desert, free from my latest stop on the rehab trail – the Life Healing Center in Santa Fe New Mexico, where I had spent the last 30 days, finishing up a 90 day rehab period that began in May of 2001 at the Sierra Tucson rehab facility. Though I was out of rehab, I was not entirely free from the demons that had landed me there. But I am sober, determined to stay that way. I’m not well enough yet to return to my former life as a paramedic in the NYC metro area. Instead, my family has arranged a job for me in a family-owned business, helping to manage properties in Manhattan and Queens.
It is July, 2001, and I am met at the airport on Long Island by my uncle – my mother’s brother. My relationship with him is not a good one. During my childhood, he inflicted physical and emotional abuse every chance that he had. There was no safe place when he was around, punches and kicks could be expected at the slightest disturbance, even when just splashing around in the bathtub as children are expected to do. My family, who lived in Scarsdale, had managed to accumulate a substantial amount of wealth, but the money did little to protect us from years of abuse. My mother had passed away a decade or so before from cervical cancer and never really succeeded in her battles with alcohol, drugs, or depression. Her several attempts at suicide punctuate my childhood memories.
The long ride from the Islip, Long Island McArthur Airport with my uncle was quiet and uncomfortable. I had flown into Islip because all the flights into LaGuardia were booked. We stopped at a roadside diner to get something to eat and I attempted to confront him on his role in my past. As always, he denied the allegations. He twisted history beyond recognition, discounting my own memories. He always had an answer to everything and his answers always had a way of vindicating him.
I’ll be working with my uncle in the family real estate business. It’s not glamorous work. I am, in fact, a glorified handyman. But it’s a steady job. A routine. Exactly what I need now. One day, I hope to regain the paramedic license I let lapse during my years of battling alcohol and drug dependency. For now, my goals are more modest. Attend the daily AA meetings. Stay out of trouble. Stay straight. Mend relationships with family and friends, strained from years of self destructive behavior.
At the top of my list of relationships to mend is my sister, Joy. She and I had barely spoken during the last few years, as my addictions became worse. But after returning from treatment she acts as if she is ready to give me another chance. Hopeful that the rehab would take root. Hopeful that I will get my life back together. My sister and I shared the same mother but had different fathers who had abandoned us both as small children. As children we lived with our mother and some extended family in the home of our grandparents in what seemed from the outside to be a quiet, respectable, successful family. Joy also had turned to alcohol and drugs for several years before finding a different life for herself. Now, she hoped I would turn the corner too, away from the drugs and alcohol.
I start my job at the family’s office on 33rd and Madison Avenue. New York City can be a lonely place, especially for a recently recovering alcoholic. I continue to fight occasional bouts of depression but I stay sober with help from people like Dr. Jim Morris of Sierra Tucson. Dr. Morris had taken a special interest in me and we stay in touch for awhile. He’s a lifeline as are some of the other people I met in Tucson. I use my e-mail to stay in contact with some of the patients I met while in Arizona.
Chapter 4 – ‘Hope you’re okay. I figure you’re down there helping…’ – September 11, 2001
The morning of 9-11, I am late for work. It’s Tuesday. I didn’t go in on Monday. In fact, I had been hold up in my apartment since the previous Thursday, fighting off depression. I hear sirens blaring outside of my apartment but that’s nothing unusual, although they seem louder and more constant this time. I check my email and, the minute I sign on, I am hit with a stream of instant messages, all from complete strangers, hoping I am okay, hoping NYC is okay. I click on the TV. My sister leaves me a voicemail on my cell phone also saying she hopes I am okay and that she figures I am downtown helping out. I can barely comprehend the TV images that are unfolding only a mile or so south of the apartment. I am tempted to crawl back into bed. This seems way too much to handle. But the message Joy left me replays in my head over and over. “Chuck, hope you’re okay. I figure that you’re down there helping…” I can’t disappoint her, not again. And, of course, she’s right. I should try and help. I have the training. I reach into my closet and dust off the box where I had stored my old paramedic uniform and badge. I shower quickly and shave to remove the five days of growth from my face, don the old uniform and make my way out the door, not sure what to do, afraid that I might even be arrested for impersonating a paramedic.
Chapter 5 –‘Our Father, Who Art in Heaven…” – September 11, 2001 – West 57th -Street-9:45 AM
The subway has been shutdown. In NYC, that never happens. It’s as if the air has stopped. The subway is the lifeblood of New York; the circulatory system for 8 million people, pounding under the streets each second, giving life to Manhattan and connecting it with the four outer boroughs. But not today. The gravity of what is happening hits me like the uncompromising voice of one of my sobriety counselors. The tragedy is no longer just images on TV in my apartment. It’s suddenly all around me. I pass the Catholic Church on 9th Avenue between 58th and 59th where I have been going each morning before work, praying to God to help keep me sober and to use me to help others in his name. No time to stop in today but, as I pass the Church, I recite the prayer to myself….“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Before the day was out, I’d be praying to God with others at Ground Zero, praying that we didn’t all die in a hole, 40 feet under the rubble. But now, on my way downtown, I had no clue about the events that were about to unfold, about my role in a rescue that would help define 9-11, help show the world how everyday New Yorkers responded to an attack on our city.
Chapter 6 – Lights & Sirens – September 11, 2001 – Heading Downtown – 10:15 AM -NOON
At 59th and Ninth Avenue, I see the ambulance receiving bay of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital, across the street from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. There’s one FDNY ambulance parked at the entrance but no crew visible. Three nurses, a retired NYPD detective and a volunteer Long Island fireman are standing outside. They were all doing the same thing as me, hoping to catch a ride downtown to see if they could help. When the paramedics emerge from the hospital, they say they can only take them as far as St. Vincent’s Hospital. I hop aboard with the others. I feel the FDNY paramedic eye my uniform strangely. I sense he doesn’t believe I am the real deal. As a test, the FDNY paramedic asks me to change the regulator on the portable oxygen tank. Every paramedic carries an oxygen tank key because it’s needed so frequently. I have to borrow one but I otherwise handle the routine task with skill and speed. The FDNY paramedic seems to relax and we are all on our way, lights and sirens blaring, down to St. Vincent’s. The three nurses stay at St. Vincent’s but I and the two others hop another ride closer to Ground Zero, getting off at Borough of Manhattan Community College, which had been taken over by first responders as a major staging area. On the way down, everyone in the ambulance silently anticipated the worst. This is the kind of day we had all trained for and prayed would never happen we silently imagined that our training would be put to the test in just a few minutes. Thousands of people occupied the World Trade Center on any given workday, so it was reasonable to assume that we would be treating hundreds if not thousands of casualties from the attack. But when we arrived at the college, we were greeted by an eerie scene, a world that, as Jim Dwyer of The New York Times has described had been “stalled by fresh catastrophe.’’ Cots had been set up. Medical personnel were milling about everywhere. But there were no patients. No injuries to treat. I got in line to receive protective equipment that the Port Authority Police Department was handing out to rescuers but before I reach the front they decide not to give anymore equipment out until further notice. Outside, I ask an ambulance crew for a paper dust mask and they provide one for me. The sweat from my body, my warm moist breath, and the extreme amount of dust in the air combine to render the protective mask useless in minutes. I notice that most of the rescuers must have had the same problem because almost all of them have no personal breathing protection at all.
Chapter 7 – A Flood of Memories – Sept. 11, 2001
The ride downtown in the FDNY ambulance brought back a flood of memories of the paramedic life I had left behind. I earned a degree as a paramedic at Westchester Community College where I excelled in my studies and graduated near the top of my class. Paramedic school was the first thing in my life that came easy. The rest of my life had been pretty much a mess since childhood. I had a weight problem as a child that later developed into a dangerous eating disorder. At the age of 18, I had entered the first of many treatment centers for alcohol, drugs, bulimia, and depression. In my adolescent years, I attended several summer camps for overweight kids, which is where I learned how to binge and purge from several of the female campers. I was no stranger to 12 step recovery programs. My mother had exposed me to Alcoholic’s Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous by bringing me along to her meetings.
Chapter 8 – ‘Whopper without The Meat’ – September 11, 2001 – Afternoon & Early Evening
Two blocks south of the college, I see the body of a Port Authority police officer lying in the street. The officer had been killed by falling debris from the collapse of the WTC. I stop, I wait, and I watch as his fellow officers carefully placed his body on a stretcher and carry him away. Cops and firefighters are not supposed to die when responding to a job. They are the ones who treat survivors, who rush in when others are rushing out. It was beyond strange seeing someone in uniform lying dead in the street. Like thousands of other uniformed personnel, I wait and wait for something to do, someone to help. But there are no mass casualties and very few survivors to treat. Only the missing and the dead, most of whom are crushed beyond recognition. We had no real way of knowing this at the time, though. At the time, we still hoped to find people, under the rubble. World Trade Center 7, the 47-story office building adjacent to the Twin Towers, has been burning since the morning collapse of the WTC. The falling towers had damaged it so badly that all anyone could do is watch and wait for it to collapse as well. Sometime in the early evening it let out a rumble and was reduced to a pile of rubble in seconds. This was the obstacle that had been preventing me from searching for survivors at Ground Zero and now it was gone.
A little bored, frustrated and impatient, I make my way to the WTC pile on my own, leaving the relative safety of the triage area set up at the college. I make my way around the rubble of World Trade Center 7, and finally come upon the rubble of what had been the two tallest structures in New York City and two of the mightiest skyscrapers in the world. Six inches or more of fine white dust covered virtually every square inch of passable sidewalk and street. Reams of paper from the offices inside the tower strangely survived. Thousands of documents – once so important in the business of the day – were scattered about the area, swirling up in gusts of wind coming off New York harbor. Abandoned FDNY fire rigs. Burned ambulances. Massive pieces of the World Trade Center lay twisted, collapsed, crushed. Dusk settled upon the scene, making it even more unworldly. The rubble is clearly unstable. Sections are on fire, thick black clouds of smoke darkening the sky for miles around the site. Alone, I stepped onto the pile of rubble that was once New York City’s World Trade Center. It felt as though I was stepping on hallowed ground. I could see a few men searching, construction workers, and civilians, no professional rescuers insight, searching the rubble. Careful where I stepped, one false move and I could fall or slide 50 feet through a gap in the twisted metal and concrete. I search for about an hour, yelling, Can anyone hear me. Smoke filled the air and fires raged near-by. I became very thirsty and returned to the ground in search of some water. I stopped at a Burger King and instantly had two bottles of water handed to me. The NYPD had commandeered the fast food restaurant. I am offered a “Whopper without the meat” – the gas and power had been turned off in the area to prevent further explosions and fire. A man in a truck outside from a flashlight company is giving out flashlights to rescuers. He offers me three or four. I drink the water, smoke a cigarette, and step back on to the rubble to continue the search. It is dark now and I am scared. I double check every step that I take and at times crawl on all fours over the rubble. I wander toward the center.
Chapter 9 – ‘Irish Eyes, Irish Eyes, Can You Hear Me?’ – September 11, 2001 – The Rescue – Nightfall
Officer Jimeno complained of thirst and pain to the lower part of his body. He was eager to get out of the hole. He was scared. So was I. Sgt. Karnes and I tried to reassure him that we would get him out, that we wouldn’t leave him. Meanwhile, my paramedic training kicked in. I checked for a distal pulse at the radial artery located in his right wrist. If you can feel a pulse in that location you can assume that your patient has a blood pressure of at least 80 systolic. He had a very strong, regular pulse. He was alert and oriented to person, place and event, which meant that his brain was receiving an adequate amount of oxygenated blood. Capillary refill – checked at the nail beds – was less than two seconds. His blood circulation was good. We gave Jimeno water and started the three hour process of digging him out, one piece of debris at a time. I reviewed our options silently in my mind and they weren’t particularly good. If we couldn’t free him, the other possibility was to amputate his legs. But we had virtually no equipment for such a risky procedure. And it was way above my skill level. Even a surgeon would be reluctant to perform an amputation in a field of operations this unstable. Our best hope was to stick with him and see if we could free him. Then, a bad situation became even worse. Jimeno started referring to his sergeant – who I later learned to be Sgt. John McLoughlin – and called out to him. Shockingly, a voice called back, pleading for help. We were separated from this second voice by a wall of debris. Now I had two patients to worry about, one of whom I could not get to. All we could do was reassure the sergeant that help was on the way. Of course, I had no idea if help really was on the way. It sounded as if Sgt. McLoughlin was slipping in and out of consciousness. Every once in a while, he would yell, “Medic.” And I would answer him back, trying to reassure him. About 30 minutes into the rescue, I heard voices and activity behind me. Two officers from the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit appeared in the hold behind me. ESU cops are like the Marines of the NYPD. When cops get in trouble, they call in ESU. I was glad to see them. The temperature inside the hold seemed to top 100 degrees. Smoke filled the small space. A FDNY firefighter, Tommy Asher, also arrived and worked diligently to keep the flames away from us as we worked. He even extinguished flames by hand and with buckets of water. As we dug, Jimeno talked about his friend, “Dom.” I later learned that a third officer, Dominick Perzzulo, had perished in the hole, mortally wounded by falling debris when the second tower collapsed. Officer Jimeno informed me that before he expired, Officer Perzzulo fired several rounds from his police handgun into the air above them in an attempt to draw rescuers to their location. The ESU officers told me later that I was on or next to Officer Perzullo’s body during the entire rescue but I didn’t realize it. Had I seen the body, I might have bolted out of there. Other rescuers began to arrive, including ESU Officers Strauss and Paddy McGee. Without them, the rescue effort would have been much more arduous. Strauss particularly took control of the situation and reassured us all. They were both experienced at rescue techniques and as EMT’s could assist with patient care. I had asked for IV setups and an oxygen tank and FF. Tommy Asher made sure that I received what I asked for. When they finally arrived, I started an IV, delivering around 3000 cc of fluid throughout the rescue effort to Jimeno. By the end of the rescue, Jimeno was no longer complaining of thirst. Instead, he was complaining about having to urinate. Keeping him hydrated was key. Strauss explained to me that the only way to get to Sgt. McLoughlin was to free Jimeno first. An area near Jimeno’s feet had to be dug out in order to reach McLoughlin. Officer McGee called out repeatedly to Sgt. McLoughlin. “Irish eyes. Irish eyes. Can you hear me?” We received no response and feared the worst. But a short time later, McLoughlin once again called out, “Medic.” This lifted all of our spirits. Hope returned in the hole.
Chapter 10 – Officer Jimeno is Free – ‘Good Job, Son’ – September 11, 2001 – 10:30 pm
Piece by piece, minute by minute, we had almost dug Officer Jimeno completely out. But a section of steel rebar blocked his final path to freedom. The rescuers above the hole passed in a battery operated Saws All to me. I was closest to Jimeno, so the job fell to me. The battery was weak and the tool didn’t do the job at first. Scott Strauss ordered up another battery and we tried it again. Sparks showered Jimeno but we had no choice. I worried about losing control of the saw and hitting him in the head. At my request Firefighter Asher passed his bunker gear down and I utilized the heavy coat and helmet to protect Jimeno from the saw blade and flying debris. I cut the rebar out of the way but another section of concrete and steel rebar held his foot. I tried to cut his laces away from his boots and pull him out but with no success. Officer Strauss ordered a Hurst Tool, known as the Jaws of Life, and handed it to me. It was heavy and I was exhausted and poorly trained in its operation. It kept slipping. Officer Strauss and I switched positions and he worked with the tool but he also had trouble. He told me to place pieces of concrete under the tool to stabilize it. I finally was able to lodge a large piece in the right location. The Jaws of Life opened and, after three hours in the middle of the Ground Zero rubble, with fires burning all around us, Officer Jimeno was free. On his way up the hole, he promised to have a barbeque for all of us as soon as he got home. Officer Strauss and I placed him in a scoop stretcher and I told him I’d bring the steaks. Only later did Officer Jimeno realize how miraculous his survival and rescue was. In the hole, he had assumed that he had been caught in a partial collapse. He had no idea that the Towers had fallen all around him. Officer Strauss ordered a fresh team into the hole to continue work to free Sgt. McLoughlin. I didn’t want to leave, having promised him that we would get him out too. But I realized Strauss was right. We were spent and needed air. As I reached the surface, an FDNY Deputy Chief patted me on the back and said, “Good job, son.” He called for another paramedic to relieve me in the hole. At that moment, I felt I had – at least for a short time – regained my life. Hundreds of FDNY, NYPD, and PAPD personnel lined the path to the rescue scene and every one of them gave me a “Good Job” as I walked on the ladders they had laid from the hole to the safety of the ground, My every step was supported by the arms of the uniformed men and woman who had lined up on both sides of the ladders and remained there for hours passing the supplies that we needed during the rescue and carrying the wounded officers and rescuers safely to the ground. While I was in the hole, I had no idea really what was happening above on the surface. The FDNY, NYPD, and PAPD – risking dangers of a very unstable situation – had mobilized to save two of their brothers. There was no greater reward than having them thank me for the role I played in the rescue. I was asked repeatedly if I wanted medical attention. But I declined, afraid that if I was taken to a hospital, they’d ask me to write a report and would figure out that my license had expired. I walked silently away from Ground Zero as anonymously as I had entered.
Chapter 11- ‘I walked away from the hole alone, as anonymously as I came’ – September 11, 2001 – 11 pm and September 12, 2001
Tired, cold, and drenched from my own sweat I decided to try to find my Cousin Jennifer’s apartment on Jane Street. I was unfamiliar with that part of Manhattan but knew that if I could find the West Side Highway that I could get either home or to Jennifer’s. My clothes were covered in dirt and ripped beyond repair. My lungs burned from breathing the superheated air and smoke for the past three hours and my body was riddled with soft tissue injuries. Now a few blocks away I started looking to hale a cab but none were in sight. I was unfamiliar with the streets of lower Manhattan and had mistakenly headed East instead of West. I was stopped by a couple of officers from the NYPD and asked if I needed medical attention. “Are you okay buddy?” they asked. I was a mess and they certainly noticed it. I asked directions and was on my way again. I noticed a Subway sandwich shop was open and entered in search of some food and water. The people behind the counter didn’t say one word to me for the entire twenty minutes that I sat and ate but they never once, not even for a minute, stopped staring. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and found that I was completely covered in white ash from the top of my head to my boots. I finished eating, found the West Side Highway and asked a cop where he thought I could catch a cab. He said only emergency vehicles were being allowed to pass South of 14th Street but he suggested that I flag one of those emergency vehicles down that were heading North on the West Side Highway and ask for a ride.
On the morning of September 13th, I showed up to work. My uncle was sitting at his desk and when I entered his office he greeted me with, “Where were you when the city was attacked? Hiding under your desk?” He found this very humorous and laughed to himself for a while. Although I had never been a coward he frequently used this kind of humor on me my entire life. As a child, I had been taught my morals and values from people who didn’t have them to give. They acted as if they had them and tried to instill them in us which led to a lot of confused children wandering around the house. I tried to explain to my Uncle and Aunt what had happened at Ground Zero and the role I played but they obviously had no intention of believing a word I said. I called my sister, Joy, to let her know I was okay and I tried to tell her the story but she had already heard the story of the rescue on the news and the news had said that the officers had been rescued by the FDNY. She noted that the news made no mention of a paramedic being involved in the rescue. My sister’s husband, John, was the only one in my family who was actually honest enough to tell me to my face that he thought I was a liar but I knew my closest relations on Earth all shared his view.
Chapter 12 – ‘My 15 Minutes’ – A month after September 11, 2001
I went back to work at my family’s real estate management company as the city struggled to rebound from the attack. After about a week, most people in the city went back to work and, more than anything else, that simple act – returning to our jobs, our schools, our routines – guaranteed that the terrorists did not win the day. A month or so went by when one day, my little cousin Haki, who works as a special agent for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, called. He had been working in Brooklyn for several months, checking serial numbers of firearms for the NYPD. The overnight shift was quiet so he brought along The New York Times to occupy himself when the phones were silent. In a special section of the Times called “A Nation Challenged” he read a story about a rescue of a police officer from the rubble of the World Trade Center which sounded all too familiar to him. ‘Could it be?’ ‘Wasn’t this the same story I heard from my cousin Chuck a few month’s ago?’ Haki told me to get a copy of today’s Times – dated Oct. 30, 2001. I went to the news stand and read a story written by a staff writer named Jim Dwyer. The story was part of a series that Mr. Dwyer was writing on Ordinary objects that somehow made a difference in people’s lives which had a connection to September 11. The story was called “Handcuffs” and followed Officer Jimeno’s relationship to the handcuff’s he carried with him and used to try to dig himself out from the rubble that trapped him. He was a rookie officer but his handcuffs had been with him during the prior 10 years or so that he worked as a security guard at a department store. For nearly 10 years he carried the handcuffs dreaming of the day that he could finally become a real police officer. The handcuffs had such sentimental value that after his lifelong dream of becoming a police officer came true he kept them on his belt as a reminder of his struggle to finally become Police Officer William Jimeno. The article also mentioned the Marine who found him and some of the rescuers who helped bring him home and included the role of a paramedic known only by his first name “Chuck.” The story stated that both Jimeno and Scott Strauss used Jimeno’s handcuffs to try and dig the officer out. I had been by Jimeno’s side for about 30 minutes before Officer Strauss arrived and I didn’t leave Jimeno’s side until he had been safely lifted from the hole three hours later. I had no memory of Strauss using the handcuffs to dig. I called the New York Times switchboard and got Mr. Dwyer’s email address. I e-mailed Mr. Dwyer and told him I had no recollection of Strauss using Jimeno’s handcuffs to dig but asked him if he could put me in touch with Jimeno so that I could see how he was doing. Mr. Dwyer said he already had a few people call him, claiming to be the mysterious paramedic named Chuck. I really didn’t care whether or not Mr. Dwyer believed me but I did want to speak with Jimeno. Mr. Dwyer said I would have to prove to him that I was the paramedic who had been in the hole before he would put me in touch with Jimeno. I agreed to try. We e-mailed back and forth for a few hours. Mr. Dwyer was speaking with Jimeno on the phone and asking me the question that would provide my identity. He asked what I did with the debris that I pulled off Jimeno. I told him I handed each piece to the cop behind me. He then asked what the cop behind me was doing with the pieces but I couldn’t answer that question because I was too busy treating and extricating my patient to be watching what the cop behind me was doing with the debris. I then suggested that Mr. Dwyer tell Jimeno about me taking possession of his handgun and passing it to Sgt. Karnes. I was able to identify the type of firearm it was and the ridiculous conversation that we had regarding it, and figured Jimeno would recall these details. Mr. Dwyer emailed me back within a few minutes. “You’re the real deal,” he said.
Chapter 13 – ‘He Doesn’t Fit the Mold’ – Rescue Aftermath – November, 2001
Jim Dwyer of the New York Times decided to follow up on his earlier story about the Jimeno rescue and concentrate on the anonymous paramedic named ‘Chuck.’ At first, I wanted nothing to do with the story Mr. Dwyer was preparing, fearful again that I would be exposed as having passed myself off as a paramedic when my license had lapsed. My sister, Joy, acted as mediator with Mr. Dwyer when he first contacted me. She wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be hurt by this story. Eventually, I met with Dwyer and told him my story. On Nov.6, 2001, Dwyer published another story as part of his “Objects” series. It appeared on the front page of The New York Times under the headline “The Shirt: Medic, Out of the Rubble, Finds an Identity Restored.” It detailed my history as an alcoholic and my role in the WTC rescue.
The Times story set off a mini media circus of interest in the rescue and the role I and others played on the night of 9-11. CBS wanted us on the air. They sent a black town car so I could visit Jimeno at a rehabilitation facility in New Jersey where he was recovering. I barely slept the night before because I was extremely nervous about appearing on national television. I am not a public speaker and have had some very embarrassing moments in the past while trying to do so. I hoped that I would be able to get through it without making a complete idiot of myself. My sister had shown up at my apartment the night before and was accompanying me along with my two long time friends Peter Crane and Terry Rahilly.
Chapter 14 – Blackballed – Fort Pierce, Florida, 2005
Several years past. I moved to Fort Pierce, Florida. My relationship with my family was almost non-existent. I had started a cleaning business with my fiancée, Tracy, and her mother, Dottie. I stayed straight for the most part but relapsed from time to time. The WTC rescue faded as a pivotal chapter in my life, although thoughts of 9-11 were never far away. I spoke with Officer Jimeno several times over the telephone. He began telling me strange stories about Staff Sergeant Karnes. He told me that he loved him for what he did for him and his family but that Sgt. Karnes wasn’t welcome to call him or come to his or Sergeant McLoughlin’s homes. He told me that he felt that Sgt. Karnes had been stalking them and
that he was worried for his safety and the safety of his family. At one point he told me that both he and John McLoughlin had obtained restraining orders against Sgt. Karnes and that he would have him arrested if he showed up at their homes again. He told me that Sgt. Karnes had been lying about his role in the rescue and that he actually had been accompanied by two other individuals while searching the rubble for survivors. I didn’t know what to make of all this. Frankly, I didn’t want to be involved. Only later did it become clear to me, when I received word that Oliver Stone was preparing to shoot a movie about the WTC rescue of Officers Jimeno and McLoughlin. I was contacted my Michael Shamberg of Double Feature Films and asked if I would be a consultant on the film. I didn’t know it at the time but would later find out that the fee paid to me was merely a “pay-off” so that the movie’s producers could legally use my name in their list of credits and avoid getting sued. I was never a consultant on their film and they never intended to use me as one. For whatever reason, Stone and his team of writers from Paramount Pictures had decided to make the NYPD and other uniformed services the heroes of the day. It’s an easier story for the public to swallow. So many firefighters and police officers were needlessly killed on 9-11, the public needed a reassuring story about firefighters and cops who worked together for a common goal – to save Jimeno and McLoughlin. And that part of the movie is true. Once they realized two of their own were in the hole, the NYPD and FDNY pulled out all the stops on the night of 9-11 to help in the rescue. But they didn’t initiate the search that found them. Sgt. Karnes found them and I found Sgt. Karnes. Together, we were the first in the hole, the first to start digging out Jimeno and tending to his medical needs. An alcoholic, former paramedic doesn’t quite cut it in Hollywood as a hero, I guess. But that’s what happened.
Chapter 15 -Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center Fiction- Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Show – West Palm Beach, Florida, August, 2006
Tracy and I arrived at the West Palm Beach Muvico Citiplace Theatre at about an hour early. We had just come from a long day of work and were tired. On the way to the theatre, which was 60 miles from our home, I received my first traffic ticket in years while making a right turn at an intersection that was marked ‘No turn on red.’ I failed to notice the sign and was detained for several minutes by a Saint Lucie County Sheriff”s Deputy. I had a feeling then that God was trying to slow me down for a day that I was not going to be very happy with. On the way to the theater we stopped at Borders Books and purchased a book called ‘Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul’ for the daughter of a friend who had recently completed treatment for chemical dependency. My copy of the book is well worn. I carried it and read it as often as I could during my last six-week stay at a treatment facility. The book is like a portable meeting and the stories have gotten me through some difficult moments in my life. We found parking on the street, fed the meter, and walked to the theatre. Still dressed in our work clothes Tracy and I waited outside the theatre for a half hour smoking cigarettes and talking. The courtyard was buzzing with shoppers and I felt pretty nervous about seeing Oliver Stone’s recreation of the worst day in American history. We entered the theatre and were greeted at the door by a publicist from Paramount Pictures who had set up the special screening. I could barely sit through the movie. It became clear early on that Stone had taken liberties with the real story and it brought back a flood of hard memories of 9-11.
Chapter 16- ‘Setting the Record Straight’ – Vero Beach, Florida, August, 2006
Shortly after seeing the film, I vowed to try and set the record straight and tell my story. I contacted Mr. Dwyer. I gave interviews to local Florida reporters and to any other media who called, making clear my displeasure with the film. My whole life had been dictated by fear. Even my actions at 9-11 were dictated by fear – fear that I would let my sister down again, fear that I would let God down again, fear that I would let someone in need of help down, and the fear of letting myself down again. As all alcoholics and addicts are fear based people and our main motivation is pain. Pain is one of the only things that will make a chemically dependent person change. By the time most chemically dependent people find their way into treatment centers a lot of damage has already been done. Over the years our tolerance for pain increases until it takes a tremendous amount of it to elicit even a small change. People in Alcoholics Anonymous speak of becoming Happy, Joyous and Free but this doesn’t come easily for most. The Alcoholic’s Anonymous program works 100% of the time for 100% of the people who work the program. The program consists of abstinence from alcohol and any other mood altering substance, attending meetings, obtaining a sponsor to help guide you through the steps, working all twelve steps to the best of your ability, and then carrying the message of recovery to another suffering alcoholic. I am what some members of Alcoholics Anonymous refer to as a chronic relapser. I have been either unwilling or unable to work the program as it is suggested and have only found limited recovery. I do continue to try despite my personal failures and I have hope that one day I also will become Happy, Joyous, and Free as so many others have. Writing this book is part of my program, part of my hope for the future, part of my effort to let others know they can make it too.
A Postscript on Treatment Centers
I am not an expert on many things but I may qualify as one on Treatment centers due to the large number of them I have found myself a patient in. Here is a little good advice if you are considering a treatment center for yourself, someone you love, a co-worker, or an employee. Following this chapter I will provide a list of and contact numbers for some credible facilities.
Most treatment centers for chemical dependency and other addictions are Twelve-Step based which means they follow the Twelve-Step recovery method of Alcoholics Anonymous. Treatment centers are not cures for dependency, they merely provide a safe place for you to educate yourself about the disease of addiction, and to free your body of the chemicals. Most treatment centers follow a 28 day program which consists mainly of group therapy with a qualified therapist and lectures. Others provide individual therapy and some alternative therapies like EMDR, acupuncture, and equine therapy to name just a few. Many treatment centers also provide daily Alcoholics Anonymous or other Twelve-Step based meetings for their patients.
Who Will Buy This Book
World Trade Center Rescue – The Real Story will piggyback off of the popularity and notoriety of the Oliver Stone World Trade Center movie. While the Stone film purported to inform filmgoers about the most dramatic rescue that occurred at Ground Zero, this book will take readers there from the point of view of those who actually lived it. For some, the subject of 9-11 remains too raw. But five years after the attack, there is clear evidence that a significant part of the reading public is now beginning to accept stories based on 9-11. A desire for truth about what happened that day remains intense nationwide. The recent success of other nonfiction books about 9-11, including 102 Minutes by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn and the 9-11 Commission Report, is clear evidence that World Trade Center Rescue has a market and will be successful. In addition, the events of 9-11 are one of the most historically significant in the nation’s history and, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, will be retold for decades to come. World Trade Center Rescue has the added dimension of being a very personal story of one man’s struggle to overcome his own shortcomings and how he was able to step up to the challenges of 9-11. Millions of people and their loved ones struggle with addictions each day. World Trade Center Rescue offers them some hope and will have a long shelf life.
About the Authors
Chuck Sereika served as a paramedic and EMT in New York City for 15 years. When his battle with alcohol and chemical dependency became too great, he walked away from that life because he wanted to cause no harm to his patients. During the late spring and early summer of 2001, as members of Al Qaeda carefully plotted and trained to fly commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, Sereika fought to regain his life, spending almost three months in rehabilitation facilities in Tucson, Arizona and Sante Fe, New Mexico. He returned to New York in late July of 2001, began a job as a property manager and battled each day to stay sober. On the morning of 9-11, when his city came under attack, he donned his old paramedic uniform and – against his better judgment – volunteered at Ground Zero, thinking he would help treat the wounded. Instead, he found himself involved in the most dramatic rescue effort of the day.
Joe Calderone teaches investigative reporting at New York University. He worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for more than 20 years, including as Investigations Editor of the New York Daily News and as an investigative and City Hall reporter for New York Newsday.