A NATION CHALLENGED: OBJECTS; Medic, Out of the Rubble, Finds an Identity Restored
Published: November 06, 2001
Actually, he had been moping.
In his closet, he found a paramedic sweatshirt and a badge he had not used for years, remnants of a treasured time he had squandered. He went to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center and hitched rides on ambulances. Maybe he would do splints or bandaging.
Downtown, instead of patients, he found a world stalled by fresh catastrophes every minute. Fires raged, more buildings were collapsing, and no one could search, much less rescue.
At dusk, the first hopeful shout rose from the pile.
Two men, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin of the Port Authority Police Department, were buried a good 20 feet below ground, almost at the exact center of the 16-acre complex. Of all the thousands who were missing, they would be the last two people pulled alive from the ruins.
For hours, they worked elbow to elbow in a tiny space, heaving concrete blocks an inch, sawing rebar, shoveling with their hands. Yet no one knew anything about the man in the blue shirt, who never stopped digging or left his patient’s side until Officer Jimeno had been hoisted from the rubble and into an ambulance.
”A medic named Chuck, that was all,” said Scott Strauss, one of the emergency services unit officers in the hole. ”He was great. None of us had ever met him before and we never saw him again.”
Last week, Charles Sereika read an account in The New York Times of the rescue that featured a pair of $20 handcuffs the officers had used to dig. He was Chuck the paramedic.
”I think people in my family doubted it,” Mr. Sereika said. ”It was hard for me to believe. I was there. I left. I was alone. It was like I was a ghost.”
On his journey to that terrible hole, Mr. Sereika traveled a much greater distance than his ambulance ride from Midtown.
For years, Mr. Sereika, 32, has struggled with alcoholism, a problem that has cost him jobs and friends and has resulted in a few nights in jail. He let his paramedic card lapse. Six months ago, his family packed him off to a rehabilitation program called Sierra Tucson in Arizona. He returned to New York in July, sober, and went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day.
Mr. Sereika got in touch with the newspaper in hopes of reaching Officer Jimeno, whom he last saw being passed across the rubble by firefighters and other rescue workers. He had no interest, Mr. Sereika said, in appearing in the press as a hero.
”I don’t fit the mold,” he said. Later, after discussing the matter with his family and his therapist, he decided that he should be open about who he is and what he did.
”Keeping secrets is going to kill me,” Mr. Sereika said. ”In May, I was down and out. Before that I hadn’t drunk in about a year, but I wasn’t going to meetings. By May, I was consumed by alcohol, and an eating disorder. I had too much shame about my relapse to come out of it myself.” His family booked flights to the rehabilitation program, and he canceled them every day for two weeks before finally going.
When he returned, he felt whole, even though he knew that an important part of his life had slipped through his fingers. Until two years ago, he worked as a paramedic in the metropolitan area. He helped manage his family’s real estate holdings in the city, and piled up minutes of sobriety until they became months.
On the evening of Sept. 11, almost nothing good was happening at the site of the attack, with most rescue attempts confined to the fringes, except for the one that led to the discovery of Officer Jimeno and Sergeant McLoughlin.
David Karnes, an accountant from Connecticut, had changed into his Marine camouflage outfit and wandered deep into the site. He heard Officer Jimeno calling.
As word spread about the trapped men, Mr. Sereika set out to the center, where he found Mr. Karnes standing alone. Mr. Sereika squeezed his way into the rubble pile, finally spotting Mr. Jimeno’s hand.
”He had a good distal pulse,” Mr. Sereika said. ”I told him we weren’t leaving him.” He pawed at the rubble and found Officer Jimeno’s gun, which he passed up to Mr. Karnes. Mr. Sereika then sent word for oxygen and an intravenous set-up. ”Any tool you asked for, it was 20 minutes to get out, and 20 minutes to get back,” Mr. Sereika recalled.
When Officers Strauss and Paddy McGee arrived, Mr. Sereika passed rocks and rubble back to them. In the distance, they could hear Sergeant McLoughlin calling out for help. ”We had to get Will Jimeno out before we could get to him,” Mr. Sereika said.
They labored under collapsed walls. It was not unlike working under the dashboard of a car, he said, except the engine was on fire and the car was about to crash. The space was filled with smoke. ”I had Will on 100 percent oxygen,” Mr. Sereika said. ”Trauma is simple. Fluids and oxygen. We couldn’t load and go, we had to extricate first.”
They could hear 4 World Trade Center groaning to its bones. ”I decided my life was not worth more than theirs,” Mr. Sereika said. Officer Strauss said that at a critical moment, when the jaws-of-life tool could not get a firm grip, Mr. Sereika shimmed rubble into place.
”It’s very easy for me to help other people,” Mr. Sereika said. ”It comes naturally to me and to all paramedics. It’s what we do. Taking care of myself, I’m not so good at.”
After four hours, Mr. Jimeno was loaded into a basket. The rescuers were spent, and sent for fresh teams. They hated to leave Sergeant McLoughlin. On the ground, they found they could barely walk. Smoke clogged their pores and reeked from the hair on their heads.
His shirt ripped beyond mending by rebar and jagged concrete, Mr. Sereika headed toward a cousin’s home in Greenwich Village, stumbling through the still streets. ”I felt lonely,” he said.
Articles in this series are reporting on workaday objects that resonate in unusual ways in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
This is a case where Hollywood can’t be accused of hyping reality—the real rescue was much more amazing and harrowing, especially when you hear the men tell it themselves.”
And Liss heard the men tell it themselves. She was one of the first reporters to interview many of the guys involved in the heroic rescue of Will Jimeno and Sgt. John McLaughlin. She produced a widely praised segment for 60 Minutes in October 2001, wrote a piece for Slate a year later and offered to share her reporting with the filmmakers who told her they “had everything they needed.”
Turns out they really didn’t.
Chuck Sereika, an unlicensed paramedic and the first to reach the trapped Jimeno, tells Liss that he felt the entire rescue, as portrayed in the film, is “fiction.” She writes, “the facts are so distorted that he didn’t recognize what he was seeing as what he lived through.”
In Stone’s film, Sereika’s rescue props go to New York City police officer Scott Strauss, a member of the elite Emergency Service Unit. And she notes several other firefighters vital to the rescue effort who were left out of the movie.
As for Karnes, the ex-Marine whose character in the film makes a bizarre biblical-like pronouncement before stepping on the rubble to search for survivors? He didn’t want to be involved in the film at all. Instead, he re-enlisted in the Marines, as he told Liss, “to go after the people who did this so it never happens again.”
life and art
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center Fiction
How the rescue really happened.
By Rebecca Liss
Posted Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2006, at 4:31 PM ET
On Sept. 11, 2001, Chuck Sereika crawled into a burning black hole in the unstable pile of debris that was once the World Trade Center, and was the first man to reach trapped Port Authority officer Will Jimeno. At least he was in real life. In Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Sereika’s glory goes to New York City police officer Scott Strauss, a member of the elite Emergency Service Unit. Perhaps it seemed more dramatic or believable to the filmmakers for the NYPD to make this daring rescue basically on their own.
Whatever the filmmakers’ reasons, they missed one of the more remarkable aspects of this rescue story. Chuck Sereika, a man with no training in collapsed-building rescue and extrication, risked his life that day for men he had never met. Sereika said he was sure he would die when he crawled in. Unlike the police and firefighters who without hesitation sacrificed everything—and I in no way discount their selfless acts—Sereika was not called to duty by his unit. He arrived on his own accord. He was a paramedic, but his license had expired and he had left that life behind as he sought treatment for addiction problems. But he grabbed his medic sweatshirt and his cell phone and headed down to Ground Zero to see if he could apply a few splints or perform minor triage. He never imagined that he would be involved in one of the few and most memorable rescues of Sept. 11.
Since the filmmakers have repeatedly stated their desire to “chronicle what happened as truthfully as we could,” World Trade Center will likely go down in the minds of many as a historical and factual account. But Sereika recently told me that he felt the entire rescue, as portrayed in the film, is “fiction”—the facts are so distorted that he didn’t recognize what he was seeing as what he lived through. I was one of the first reporters to interview many of the men involved in the heart-stopping rescue of Jimeno and Sgt. John McLaughlin, two of the last people to be to be pulled alive from the rubble. (Their story was first told in a piece I produced for 60 Minutes II in Oct. 2001 and a year later in a story I wrote for Slate. During the film’s production, I offered to share my reporting with the filmmakers but was told they had everything they needed.)
I will never forget the day I spoke to Will Jimeno. He was still in the hospital recovering from severe injuries, although he wasn’t as badly wounded as McLaughlin, who lay in a medically induced coma for six weeks. I listened mostly in stunned silence, with tears streaming down my face. It is from these original interviews that I can piece together what is accurate in Stone’s movie and what has been changed or fictionalized in terms of the rescue. Rather than make a movie about the nearly unbelievable story of how Jimeno and McLauglin were first located by Dave Karnes, a former Marine turned accountant, and the truly death-defying rescue that ensued, Stone lingers on the time the men spent trapped and the anguish of their families as they wait for answers.
This is a case where Hollywood can’t be accused of hyping reality—the real rescue was much more amazing and harrowing, especially when you hear the men tell it themselves. In the movie, Jimeno and McLaughlin, who was trapped deeper in the hole, are pulled out so quickly that we do not get a sense of the painstaking struggle involved in saving them or the fear the rescuers felt at the time. It took three hours to extricate Jimeno and another eight to 10 to get to McLaughlin. The space was so confined that the rescuers had to begin digging with their hands, breathing in smoke and dust, as their air packs wouldn’t fit.
Watching the re-creation, I noticed how Strauss places the Jaws of Life into the space to remove a cement slab off Jimeno without any apparent hesitation. When Strauss recounts the story, this is the most dramatic point of the rescue and comes only after hours of work. He said he feared the building would collapse further when he operated the tool. “I told Willie that (one of) two things are gonna happen. One is we get out and it works. The other is that it doesn’t work and we both get buried. … It started to creak, it started to groan. The mortar started to split on the cinder block walls. And it wasn’t enough. The tool reached its limit,” Strauss said in a 2001 interview. To make the tool extend farther, it was Sereika, according to Strauss’ recollection at the time, who suggested they place rocks underneath for more leverage. Strauss said he couldn’t get down there, so Sereika crawled in and positioned the rocks. It was this maneuver that finally freed Jimeno. In the movie, I missed any sense of the tension between the rescuers as one effort fails and they try another, all while dreading death.
As for Dave Karnes, his role as one of two Marines to locate McLaughlin and Jimeno by searching the pile when the professional rescuers had backed off is based on reported accounts and fictionalization, since he didn’t cooperate with the film’s producers. Rather than work on a picture in Hollywood, Karnes re-enlisted in the Marines at age 45 “to go after the people who did this so it never happens again,” as he told me. (When his first tour of duty didn’t take him to Iraq, he re-upped for a second tour and made it to the combat zone, serving 17 months there.) In the movie, Karnes leaves his Wilton, Conn., office, dons his old Marine fatigues, stops to get a Marine Corps haircut, and visits his pastor on his way to Ground Zero. While these events are mostly accurate, the film seems to overplay his zeal without conveying his motivations and reasoning. In reality Karnes wanted to dress the part of a Marine for access to an all-but-sealed Lower Manhattan. In the movie, many of Karnes’ lines are cryptic religious references that make him seem like a robotic soldier of Christ—a little wacky and simplistic. This may be why test audiences didn’t believe he existed, according a report in Newsweek. The man I interviewed, while he embodied extraordinary inner conviction, was a real human being who took risks that most of us didn’t.
Had the filmmakers convinced Karnes to work with them, they also might not have missed a more glaring blunder. The other Marine who helped locate the two trapped men and who until recently had not come forward, is not white as he was portrayed by the filmmakers. He is black.
The filmmakers, of course, couldn’t include the heroic deeds of every man who played a part in those grueling 12 hours, but other noteworthy men were completely or mostly left out: Tommy Asher, the firefighter who first controlled the raging fires; officer Richard Doerler of the Nassau County Police Department; and John Busching, a former detective and paramedic with the NYPD Emergency Service Unit. They were all vital to the rescue effort.
It was Doerler, along with two FDNY firefighters, who finally pulled McLaughlin to safety after three hours of digging. In the movie, a team made up solely of firemen extricates McLaughlin. In real life, Doerler came in to relieve many other rescue workers who had been digging for about five hours and working sometimes in 20-minute shifts as the conditions were too difficult to withstand any longer amount of time. Doerler fashioned scoops out of metal scraps, as his usual hand shovel wouldn’t fit at first. But none of these dramatic details come through in the movie. Doerler, like Strauss and Sereika before him, had to straddle the trapped officer’s body in order to fit in the narrow space, balancing himself on his right arm and reaching out with his left to pull out the mashed concrete and twisted metal bits—a task made more difficult by the fact that he is right-handed.
But Doerler doesn’t mind that he wasn’t included in the film. He said he wasn’t looking for fame and recognition that day. The filmmakers apparently knew about Doerler and his contribution. Surprisingly, despite his on-screen absence, you can find his name in the credits as a consultant. But he says that the filmmakers never called him once to hear his story firsthand. As for Busching, he was on the set during production. While he says the filmmakers shot scenes depicting his efforts to help keep McLaughlin alive, they never made it into the final cut. Busching, who in reality worked alongside a doctor from Pennsylvania not pictured in the film, said he was sorry that the medical aspects of the rescue couldn’t be included. However, he, like Doerler, doesn’t complain about not getting his 15 minutes of fame.
Doerler said he hoped his character would be included, not for his own credit but so that the world would know what the Nassau County Emergency Service Unit did that day. Doerler hasn’t seen the film, although he plans to. He was invited to the premiere and would have liked to have been there last week. But Doerler, now a sergeant, was otherwise occupied. On the beat patrolling Nassau County, he couldn’t make it to one of Hollywood’s biggest nights. He had to work.
Rebecca Liss is an associate producer at CBS’s 60 Minutes.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2147350/
9/11: An unlikely hero
BY BILL DeYOUNG
Scripps Newspapers, 2006
VERO BEACH, Fla. — It wasn’t bravery that compelled Chuck Sereika to walk into the smoldering ruin of the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
It was fear.
His sister Joy had a left a message on his answering machine. Just checking on you, she’d said. I guess you’re down there helping out.
Sereika had already heard the commotion in the street, seen the disaster unfolding in downtown New York City — about 60 blocks from his midtown apartment — on TV.
“And I still had no intention of going down there,” he remembered. “I don’t think like that. I hadn’t worked as a paramedic in a few years.”
In fact, he’d let his license expire months before, while he’d been at a treatment facility out west. Drinking, drugs and depression had become Sereika’s support system; the black sheep of an already dysfunctional family, he was used to disappointing Joy. Lately, however, their relationship had been improving.
So her call that morning stirred him to action.
“Maybe it’s in my character to help people, because I’ve done it for so long,” Sereika said. “But it wasn’t even a thought. The only reason I ended up there was because I didn’t want to let my sister down. The rest was just God.”
Sereika, 37, moved to Vero two years ago, after discovering the Treasure Coast during a stint at a Delray Beach rehab center. With his new bride Tracy, he runs Clean As a Whistle, a house–cleaning service.
Like many of those who braved the hell of Ground Zero to rescue others, Sereika’s story is told in Oliver Stone’s movie “World Trade Center.”
Or at least one version of his story.
“It was a very long, very tiring rescue, and nothing like you see in the film,” said Sereika, who sat uneasily through the film. “Paramount Pictures can make any kind of movie they want, but certain people know the truth. And the truth stands by itself.”
He thought the script, and actor Frank Whaley, made him look like an unprofessional “geek” who had a very small role in the rescue. They bungled many facts, he felt, and he’s considering a defamation of character lawsuit.
In the real world, meanwhile, the nightmares have finally ended. For years, Sereika jumped at loud sounds, at violence on television, at low–flying airplanes. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — like a soldier who’s come out of particularly violent combat — but it seems to have “worked itself out,” he said, through therapy.
But when he wants to, he can still close his eyes and go back to The Hole.
He’d thrown on one of his blue paramedic sweatshirts, walked to a nearby hospital and talked his way onto an emergency vehicle going to the site.
He arrived at 11 a.m., not long after the twin towers had collapsed like stacks of kindling. He figured he’d splint a few legs, apply an oxygen mask or two, feel good about himself and head back home to call Joy.
“It looked like a huge snowstorm in September,” he recalled. “Everything was just covered in this white ash. Everybody was standing around. I saw no civilians at all; it was a sea of uniforms. There was nobody to treat. There was nothing there.”
Serieka spent several hours carefully stepping through rubble with members of the New York police and fire departments.
At dusk, the site — pockmarked with fires and the jagged architecture of disaster — was deemed too dangerous, and rescuers were called back.
On his own, he began to climb the smoking rubble heap. “It’s just out of my character to have done what I did,” Serieka said. “I felt like we were on hallowed ground. I put it into my head that it was a woman and a child that were trapped.”
It was God, he believed, that put the trapped mother–and–child image in his mind.
“I actually figured that their lives were probably worth more than mine. I also figured that I wasn’t going to live through this. I thought ‘There’s no way I’m coming back.’
“Because I had to crawl, from the outside, on my hands and knees. There was big spaces in the rubble, and some went down what looked like 90 feet.”
‘Trapped pretty good’
He came upon Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, a retired Marine who’d driven in from Connecticut to volunteer.
“So I see one marine in a uniform, standing there by this opening, all by himself. And I thought ‘I’m really going to die now.’
“He’s looking at me for help, going ‘Thank God! The rescue team is here!'”
But Sereika, balancing on a broken slab of what once been Building 7, was all alone.
Karnes pointed his flashlight down into what remained of an elevator shaft, where officer Will Jimeno lay, almost completely covered by chunks of concrete and splintered rebar. At first, all Sereika could see was Jimeno’s frantically waving hand.
Karnes helped Sereika shimmy himself into the crawlspace that would lead to the trapped officer. “I reached for my cell phone — at least, I thought, I can call my sister before I die,” Sereika said. “It fell out of my hand, down one of the holes. It was gone — and that was it.”
Karnes radioed for assistance.
In The Hole, the smoke choked Sereiko, and the heat was nearly unbearable. Still, he clawed his way down, until he found the body of Dominick Pezzulo, a cop who’d been crushed by falling debris. And then he saw Jimeno.
“I was right next to him,” Sereika said. “He was pinned from the neck down. I started digging him out on my own, because I didn’t think any help was coming. I wasn’t going to leave him. He was scared.”
The frantic young officer, who’d been buried for 10 hours, talked about his daughter, and his pregnant wife. He cried. “He was begging me to cut his legs off,” Sereiko said. “Like I could cut his legs off! He was trapped pretty good.”
‘Good job, son’
Sereika pulled debris away for about 30 minutes, and once others arrived, he gave Jimeno oxygen and an intravenous drip. A pair of emergency medical technicians backed into the tight space to assist.
“I had to reach for every rock I took off Jimeno,” Sereiko said. “The smallest rock, I would hand to Scott Strauss, he would hand it to Paddy McGee. And he threw it in the elevator shaft. That went on for three hours.”
Once Jimeno was freed, loaded into a stretcher and ferried out by a bucket brigade of responders, Sereika — bruised, exhausted, his lungs scorched by the burning subterranean air — was helped out of the hole. He could barely stand.
“When I came out, there was a chief by the entrance. He goes ‘Good job, son,’ and he patted me on the back.
“And he gets on his radio and says ‘We need another paramedic.’ Which made me feel pretty good.”
He was, despite his screwups, self–doubts and family recriminations, a paramedic after all.
Jimeno — and Sgt. John McLoughlin, who was freed around dawn — were the last people pulled from Ground Zero alive.
Act of heroism
Around 11 that night, Chuck Sereika walked the 20 blocks to his cousin Jennifer’s apartment in Greenwich Village. He was dazed and shivering, and had the cold sweats.
Eventually, he told his family about his part in Jimeno’s rescue. “And my sister said ‘Well, the TV said it was the fire department that rescued him.’ They didn’t believe me.
“So I let it go, because it’s pretty typical for my family not to believe a word I say.”
It was only after the New York Times wrote about his act of heroism that Sereika’s family understood, and praised him.
Days after 9–11, Sereika read about United 93, the hijacked plane that had crashed in a field on Sept. 11. A lightbulb went on in his mind — God had told him about the woman and child, and both Jimeno and Karnes had spoken of “seeing Jesus” amidst the chaos.
“The last thing heard on the cockpit recorder was ‘Allah is Great,'” he said. “So why would it be so strange that, whether it’s the same god or not, that He sent us to try to make right something that was wrong?
“The only thing left was two officers. Everything else was done. I don’t have any big questions about it; I believe it was divine intervention.”
By Greg Robin
For Hometown News
No one disputes that five years ago the United States suffered tragic horror and loss unlike ever before.
But the same doesn’t hold true for a recent movie’s depiction of the events and some of the men who became heroes that day.
And some of those heroes who are outraged at the movie, including a Vero Beach man, plan to write a book that will explain what they contend really happened, as opposed to the depiction in “World Trade Center.”
But others associated with the movie, including the producer, contend the movie did a good job of portraying what happened in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
Chuck Sereika, 37, a Vero Beach resident and former paramedic whose license was expired when he voluntarily helped rescue a police officer, said the entire rescue scene depicted in the film was inaccurate.
“It was all Hollywood fiction,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, who first discovered the trapped officers, Tommy Asher, a New York City firefighter, and Mr. Sereika are appalled at the misinterpretation of the film.
In response, they began working on a book to summarize what they believe transpired during the rescue of Port Authority police officers, Will Jimeno and Sgt. John McLaughlin.
The book, which they hope to publish next year, will also explain their disgust for the film and the people involved, Mr. Sereika said.
The first section will include a biography of the three men, as well as how each of them first learned of the attacks. It will also give a detailed description of the entire rescue, Mr. Sereika said.
A second section will explain what occurred throughout the next three years, which caused a rift between Officer Jimeno and the men.
The conclusion will discuss what the authors contend are erroneous parts of the film, and may provide some of their theories as to why they were inaccurately portrayed, Mr. Sereika said.
He said that him and Staff Sgt. Karnes, who at the time was an “off contract” U.S. Marine, were the first to help rescue officers McLaughlin and Jimeno from the rubble of the fallen south tower.
The film depicts Scott Strauss, a New York City police officer and member of the Emergency Services Unit, and Mr. Sereika crawling into a 20 to 30 foot hole to rescue the officers.
However, Staff Sgt. Karnes and Mr. Sereika said they arrived 20 to 30 minutes before any other rescuers.
Staff Sgt. Karnes, 48, first saw the film at an advanced screening.
“I was very close to walking out, because it was not the rescue I participated in,” he said.
The rescue process was considerably more arduous than the film shows, Mr. Sereika said.
He said it was a delicate procedure and took three hours to free Officer Jimeno from the debris.
Mr. Asher, 37 said the rescue was more amazing than what was depicted in the film.
“It was nothing short of a miracle,” Staff Sgt. Karnes said. He said it was God’s grace that a paramedic, a U.S. Marine, a firefighter and two police officers were all in the hole with Officer Jemino.
“We all just happened to show up at the right time,” Mr. Asher said.” “We were like a well-oiled machine.”
Michael Shamberg, the film’s producer, responded by saying that the focus of the film was the struggle of officers Jimeno and McLaughlin’s struggle for survival, and the lack of time in the film prevented a focus on any one hero.
“We condensed facts to accelerate the story telling,” Mr. Shamberg said.
He added that the idea behind the rescue scene was to show a glimpse of all of the people responsible for saving the two officers, rather than focus on any individual.
“We did our best to pay tribute to everybody,” he said.
Mr. Sereika and Staff Sgt. Karnes said they are also annoyed that Mr. Asher had a minimal role in the film.
According to them, Mr. Asher was responsible for extinguishing a fire that almost consumed Officer Jimeno.
“He saved all of our lives,” Mr. Sereika said.
“This was a vital guy in the hole, but they choose to give him very little of the movie’s time,” Staff Sgt. Karnes said.
Mr. Asher said he believes his role was reduced because of a hidden rift between Port Authority police officers and New York City firefighters.
He said that many Port Authority officers felt slighted that the firefighters received most of the recognition for rescue efforts, and this was Officer Jimeno’s way of getting them their recognition.
Officer Jimeno denied that the film was aimed at gaining recognition primarily for the Port Authority Police Department and said it was backed by the three fire departments responsible for rescuing the two men.
“We (officers Jimeno and McLaughlin) were just the vehicles to show people what all of the rescuers did,” Officer Jimeno said. “I wouldn’t want the fire department shamed at all, because they worked with us hand in hand.”
He also said that although he felt Mr. Asher played a major part in his rescue, his role in the film was appropriate.
Mr. Sereika also said he feels the film did not give him proper credit for rescuing Officer Jimeno.
“I played a much bigger role in rescuing Jimeno than the film depicted,” he said. “I was by Jimeno’s side for three hours digging him out and giving him oxygen and IV fluids.”
Officer Jimeno responded to the criticism of the men by saying that the film would be too long if it depicted everyone’s heroism.
He said he disagrees that the film’s focus was on him and Officer McLaughlin.
“It’s not about any individual,” Officer Jimeno said. “It’s about the 40 men involved in both rescues.”
Despite Mr. Asher’s expressed disgust with Officer Jimeno, he said he does not feel that director Oliver Stone nor Paramount Pictures intentionally misportrayed the film. He said that Mr. Stone and Mr. Shamberg were only using information that consultants gave them, and their intentions were to make the film entirely accurate.
Mr. Sereika, on the other hand, said he believes producers knew beforehand that their version was a lie, because of previous statements that Officer Strauss gave in a Nov 6, 2001, New York Times article.
“I would have hoped they would have had more respect for us and told the truth,” Mr. Sereika said.
In the article, Officer Strauss, along with other emergency officers, said that when they dropped into the hole, they already saw Mr. Sereika tending to Officer Jimeno.
When asked about the conflicting statements, Officer Strauss said that the confined and smoky conditions in the hole caused producers to have to change the rescue scene.
“They wanted to take the viewing experience of the audience into consideration,” he said.
He added that the focus of the film was not intended to be about the rescue, but on the two trapped officers, and the events that took place that day between them and their families.
Officer Strauss said he doesn’t feel it matters who tended to the men first.
“It doesn’t change the story,” he said. “It’s important that we worked as a team.”
Mr. Shamberg, who has produced such films as “Pulp Fiction,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Garden State” and “Along Came Polly,” responded to the criticism of the rescue scene by saying that the script was based on first- hand accounts of 10 film consultants involved in the rescue, and many of them had different scenarios.
“We had editorial control and verified details with people who were part of the rescue and who worked on the film,” he said.
Officer McLaughlin, played by actor Nicolas Cage, was in a medically- induced coma for six weeks after the rescue and told him that he had no recollection of that day, Mr. Sereika said.
He said that he believes that this resulted in Officer Jimeno being able to manipulate the script, and that he intentionally told producers to alter what occurred.
“America has been duped by Will Jimeno,” Staff Sgt. Karnes said.
Officer Jimeno denied that he had any control on the script, and said that Mr. Stone had already began researching the facts before he became involved with the film.
Mr. Sereika said that Officer Jimeno wanted Staff Sgt. Karnes to leave certain men out of any film or book projects. When Staff Sgt. Karnes insisted that each man receive credit and an equal amount of money, Officer Jimeno betrayed him, Mr. Sereika said.
“They would be dead if it wasn’t for Staff Sgt. Karnes, and they turned on him like a pack of wolves,” he said.
Officer Jimeno denied ever trying to exclude Karnes or anyone else from any projects.
“I would never do that to an American hero,” Officer Jimeno said.
Another reason why Mr. Sereika said he believes that Officer Jimeno had control of the film is because Mr. Asher told him that Officer Jimeno threatened to leave the set if Mr. Sereika was there.
Officer Jimeno denied that he ever told Mr. Asher about leaving the set.
“I don’t know where this came from,” Officer Jimeno said. “I am very saddened to hear that Mr. Asher is saying these things.”
Mr. Shamberg said that at no point in time did any of the film’s crew plan on asking Mr. Sereika to visit the set, because all of the information needed from him had already been obtained.
He also denied that Officer Jimeno ever had control of the film, and said he never threatened to leave the set.
“We had many consultants on the film telling us what happened,” Mr. Shamberg said. “There was no one consultant who had any control. We had the control.”
Mr. Sereika and Staff Sgt. Karnes said they also feel that their characters do not accurately represent them.
“They keep portraying me as this errant Marine who defied authority,” Staff St. Karnes said. However, he said that before the rescue, people at the Brooklyn Marine Corp. Center were backing him and wished him good luck.
“I was probably more trained and more professional for what I did than anyone down there,” Staff Sgt. Karnes said.
Mr. Sereika said he also feels disrespected with the way he was depicted in the film.
“They portrayed me as this person with all of these problems,” Sereika said.
The film describes him as a man with an expired paramedic license who is trying to get his life back together. At no point during the rescue did anyone know his license expired or of any personal problems he might have had, he said.
What angered Mr. Sereika most about the film was the focus on the morbid death of Dominick A. Pezzulo, a Port Authority police officer who perished in the collapse. He said that Officer Pezzulo’s family begged producers and Officer Jimeno to cut the gory scene that shows him suffering before his demise.
“They exploited his death to make money,” he said.
Officer Jimeno, on the other hand. said he felt it was important to include the scene.
“I understand that the family was upset, but we made a decision to tell the truth,” Officer Jimeno said. “If we didn’t show his heroism, it would be a dishonor.”
In a June 16 article in The Star-Ledger, a New Jersey daily newspaper, Officer Pezzulo’s widow, Jeanette, said she was upset that producers would not let her view the scene before the release of the film.
“Show me how you edited it to be sympathetic to my family,” she said in the article. “If you’ve done it, let me see it.”
Mr. Shamberg said he felt differently about the scene, and that it was important to include it in the film to pay tribute to Officer Pezzulo and all of the heroes who perished that day.
The three heroes writing the book said their rescue will forever have an impact on their lives.
After eight days of searching for survivors at ground zero, Staff Sgt. Karnes re-enlisted as a Marine where he served in Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines, and recently returned home after 17 months in Iraq.
He said he plans to retire within the next few months and will return to work to what he said is one of the world’s largest accounting firms.
Like with thousands of other courageous rescuers, pollutants from the collapsed buildings caused Mr. Asher to become chronically ill with lung disease and he said he lost 30 percent of his lung capacity.
He was one of the 70 percent of rescue workers at Ground Zero who have since suffered from respiratory problems, according to a Mount Sinai Medical Center study.
In March, he was forced into early retirement from the fire department. Him and his wife, Maria, live in Elmont, N.Y., with their two children, where they own a nursery school.
Mr. Sereika and his fiancé, Tracy, own Clean As A Whistle Cleaning Service in Vero Beach.
About 2,749 people died in the World Trade Center attacks, and the officers were two of only 20 people to be pulled out of ground zero alive, Mr. Sereika said.
Once their book is published, he said he encourages people to read it, so they will have an accurate picture of what happened.
“I figured that America deserves to know the truth about that day,” Mr. Sereika said. “They certainly didn’t get it from Oliver Stone.”
In November of 2001 a reporter from London’s Daily Telegraph and I conducted an interview over breakfast. We talked for a while and pasted below is what he wrote.
I had HUGE resentments toward that Brit for a very longtime….Now it is by far my favorite article about God, 911, and a GARDEN-VARIETY-DRUNK named Chuck Sereika.
The ONLY thing that has changed since Charles Lawrence wrote the article is ME and the way I perceive the world.
Dealing with an spiritually sick, toxic, and hateful drunk over the past 24 hours brought me back to it. Her name is Liz. Please include her in your prayers.
The Drunk who found redemption in the ruins:
Charles Laurence meets the paramedic who disappeared after saving the last men to be pulled alive from the World Trade Centre
ON the morning of September 11, Charles Sereika woke up as a drunk recently released from a rehabilitation centre, a drunk who had quit his job as a paramedic with a hospital ambulance crew and was reduced to living alone with his self-disgust.
By midnight on the day of the terrorist suicide attack that destroyed the World Trade Centre, he was the mysterious hero who had saved the last men to be pulled alive from the rubble, and then simply walked off into the night.
Mr Sereika had spent more than four hours in a tiny space 30ft below the surface of the mountain of burning debris, administering the oxygen, water and intravenous drips that kept alive Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, both officers of the Port Authority Police Department.
Throughout that time he did not stop digging with his bare hands, pulling concrete and steel from the nearly buried body of Mr Jimeno, refusing to leave his side until he could heave him into a basket to be pulled gently free by firemen behind him. Mr McLoughlin was finally freed four hours later.
The firemen, National Guardsmen and policemen who joined the rescue had no idea that his badge had expired and that, strictly speaking, he was impersonating a paramedic.
The rescue of Mr Jimeno and Mr McLoughlin was greeted as a kind of redemption in the last minutes of the darkest day. The story that was almost lost was that it was also a kind of redemption for the man who braved an inferno in defiance of his own drunken ruin.
For weeks the legend of the “ghost” who led the sole successful rescue was among the better urban myths that followed the disaster. Then, the New York Times published a story in which Mr Jimeno, badly injured, confirmed that a man called Chuck had reached for his hand in the rubble just as he felt he was dying.
A relative telephoned the newspaper and said that Chuck was real. He was persuaded to surface in exchange for a visit to Mr Jimeno, who is still recovering in hospital.
Mr Sereika was painfully shy and reluctant to speak when The Telegraph tracked him down last week, but he agreed to meet in a diner near the Manhattan office from where he manages buildings owned by his family.
He said: “We are all really lucky, we could have died down there, and in a way it seems like a dream now. But my role has been blown out of proportion. The guy was trapped and he needed help. Me a hero? No way. I’m not the type.”
Mr Sereika, 32, has the face of a boxer and the close cropped hair of a soldier, but his blue eyes are soft and reveal a sensitivity which he believes has tormented him since his teens.
He said: “I was always the most sensitive of the paramedics, and I have struggled with depression and alcoholism since I was 16. Drink drowns it out.”
He lost his job with a hospital crew a year ago, and by the spring he had lost control of his drinking. His family sent him to a rehabilitation hospital in May and he stayed until August. He has managed to avoid drink since.
He said: “On the 11th I sat and watched the news like everybody else and at about 11 in the morning something just took me over to the closet and I got out my jacket and badge. I figured I could do something useful for once.”
But as he made his way to Ground Zero, he found that there were no survivors to treat. It was shortly after dark that he came across a truck resupplying firemen, and took four torches before venturing back on to the rubble.
Then he heard a National Guard officer, David Karnes, shout for rescuers. A sound of hope had come from the rubble. “Then I heard the cry for help, and you could see a hole leading below the surface,” said Mr Sereika.
“I thought, ‘My God, I am going to die here’. There was smoke and fire and the last standing building was going to fall.
“But then my heart said that my life was not worth more than whoever was down there, so I went down. After about five minutes, I had got down about 15ft and I heard Jimeno call out, ‘Over here’. Finally, I found a hand, sticking out of a pile of rubble, and it was him. He had a pulse.”
Mr Karnes summoned help, but it took nearly an hour to get the first men and supplies down the hole. The rescuers were amazed to find the lone figure already at work, and he stayed by Mr Jimeno’s side.
Mr Sereika said: “I believe I was there for a reason. Will was not supposed to die, and I was supposed to be there. Ambulance crews don’t go to danger zones – we are meant to wait for the rescuers to bring them out. So if I had not been there on my own, he might not have got the help he needed to stay alive.”
Once Mr Jimeno had been placed in the basket and handed from rescue worker to rescue worker until he was clear, Mr Sereika and the men who had joined him collapsed with exhaustion.
To the puzzlement of the others, Mr Sereika turned away from the help he was in turn offered and, covered in dust and with his blue jacket torn to shreds, began to stumble northwards towards Greenwich Village and a cousin’s flat.
He said: “I don’t know why I didn’t want help, but it might be because all my life I have felt better looking after other people than accepting help. I just walked through these abandoned streets.”
Mr Sereika stayed at home or went to his office but refused to talk about his day on September 11 even to his family. He thinks he may have been suffering from shock.
Now he is beginning to feel better than he has for years. It is not that he himself feels redeemed from the shame of the drunk, but he is no longer hiding from his old friends and those who have tried to help him.
He said: “My family are proud of me, which means a lot. I’m not special, I know that. But I do know that if I had made the other choice, and walked away from those guys trapped in hell, I would have felt very bad about myself. So I’m glad I did what I did.”
With that he shrugs and steps outside on to the pavement to smoke a cigarette. But then he turns back. There is one thing he has forgotten to say.
He wants us to know that it really felt so very good to be allowed to visit Mr Jimeno and Mr McLoughlin, and to be able to wish them well. Mr Sereika will not disclose what they had to say to him.