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Living through 9/11

Unlike so many others, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin survived. Ann Curry reports on the new movie.

September 11th traumatized the nation. Close to 3,000 people were killed in a single day. Now,  one of America’s most controversial filmmakers, Oliver Stone, is releasing a movie about it called “World Trade Center.”

Ann Curry, Dateline anchor: Why do you think America is ready now to see what happened at Ground Zero that day?Oliver Stone: I think there is something to be said for facing fears, confronting it, demythologizing it.Curry: There was a lot of concern about you making this film because you do deal with politics and because you talk about conspiracy theories.Stone: The movie is a simple, clean story of what happened that day. There are no politics in that movie. It’s about what people do under pressure. 

It is the story of Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno who ended up trapped in the rubble of the twin towers.

Will Jimeno: I didn’t want to die down there buried alive like that..

In the movie, Will Jimeno is played by Michael Pena, and John McLoughlin, by Nicholas Cage. The two were on duty not far from the towers when the planes struck. Like thousands of police and firefighters, they raced to Ground Zero.

Curry: What was the first thing that happened that made you know it had gone from bad to worse?Jimeno: I thought it was a car bomb and I looked towards the lobby of [tower] two. The lobby of two was disappearing. I had no idea that it was collapsing down on top of us. I could see the building falling apart and I was scared like a little baby. I mean that is how scared I was. You got slammed and everything went black...

The towers collapsed on the two men. But unlike so many others, they survived. Stone uses their story to shrink the overwhelming tragedy of September 11th to a scale small enough to understand.

Stone: These two men were at the epicenter of the collapse. To do this story was just to concentrate on the small man, like platoon: the man in the field; the eye-witness.

The movie also follows their wives that day as they waited for word on what happened to their husbands.

Stone: Each of these two wives come to a place where they have to accept that their husband is dead or not coming home. How do you tell your children? How do you live with it for the rest of your life?

The agony of the families was shared by the men in the hole as they waited for someone to find them.

John McLoughlin: I realized how bad it was that I started thinking about my family. I didn't stop thinking about them—I had to try and get out for them.Curry: You and your wife like, so many people with children, lead busy lives and have felt separated. And yet in this moment, according to the film, something changed in you and in her. McLoughlin: Well, if going through an event like that doesn’t change you, there is something wrong with you. 

They had plenty of time to think. They were badly injured unsure if they’d ever be found.

In an effort to recreate that horror, Stone built a huge replica of the debris at Ground Zero. He flew in dozens of police and firefighters who’d been at the scene that day to make sure the details were accurate. And he would stuff the actors into impossibly tight spaces for hours at a time.

Stone: It is no fun to do a movie like this, and I can’t say that everyday I was a merry dwarf whistling off to work. It was hard. Nick and Mike were filled with dust all day, filthy from morning to night.

But as bad as Stone was able to make it, Will and John— who were on the set almost everyday— say real life was worse.

Jimeno: 100 times worse. Curry: What made it worse?Jimeno: Death. It was right at the doorstep at every corner. Everything could come down, it was just a really bad condition.

The air was thick with smoke and dust, they were being crushed to death, desperate for water. They lay there for hours, drifting in and out of consciousness.

Jimeno: In the distance, I could hear someone yell, “United States Marine Corp, can anybody hear us? Yell or tap!”  And I remember yelling to John, “The Marine Corps here.” At that point, we thought we were at war. During the course of the night, we had heard gunfire above us, which now we know was an armory in Building Seven.  So, we thought our cops are shooting it out with the bad guys up top. I’m thinking if the Corps’ here, this is bad.

Rescuers heard the cries from the men underground and began the dangerous task of trying to get them out.

McLouglin: These men still chose to crawl in to the whole knowing that they may die there. That kind of courage needs to be portrayed. Will and I had to face it, but we had no choice — we got trapped. These men had a choice and decided to face death.

Scott Strauss, emergency services police officer: I had no equipment. I couldn’t fit anything in the hole. I was going crawl into this place and probably never come out and the only thing you can see of Will is his head, his right arm, and part of his leg.  It looked like somebody dumped him out of a dump truck.

It took almost three hours for Scott and others to cut Will loose from the wreckage.

Jimeno: I was just so happy that I could feel cool air hit me and I knew I was out.  And then I looked up and I just said, “Where is everything?”  And there was a firefighter.  He said, “It’s all gone, kid.” And I remember— I just started crying. Then it hit me. Jesus Christ. Those sounds, those horrible roars that we heard overhead, those were the towers coming down. 

John was only 15 feet from Will, yet it took rescuers another 8 hours to free him.

Only 20 people were pulled alive from the wreckage. John and Will were numbers 18 and 19. The two men needed dozens of operations to walk again. Today their gratitude towards rescuers, like Scott Strauss, is as strong as ever.

Jimeno: Yeah, I call him a lot. (laughter)Curry: What do you say?Jimeno: I tell him I love him because everyday that I get to see my Bianca, my Olivia, I know why.

The spirit of selflessness, dedication and gratitude that existed among people on September 11th is exactly what Stone hoped to capture in the movie "World Trade Center."

Stone: It’s a reminder of the essential behavior of people under duress. There’s goodness in these people. And you see it constantly emerge through that day. What the best people do to each other to help each other.