Sept 11 Voices of Survivors

Desiree Bouchat, a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, looks at photos of those who perished, in a display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in New York. While Sept. 11 was a day of carnage, it also was a story of survival: Nearly 3,000 people were killed, but an estimated 33,000 or more people evacuated the World Trade Center and Pentagon. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

NEW YORK (AP) — Trapped in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, Will Jimeno lived through the unthinkable. Twenty years later, he’s still living with it.

Injuries that fateful day ended his police career. He has post-traumatic stress disorder. He keeps some mementos, including a cross and miniature twin towers fashioned from trade center steel. 

Nearly 3,000 people were killed when hijackers in Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network rammed four commercial jets into the trade center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field Sept. 11, 2001. Yet an estimated 33,000 or more people successfully evacuated the stricken buildings.

They navigated smoky stairs in the World Trade Center or streamed out of a flaming Pentagon. Some fled an otherworldly dust cloud at ground zero. Others willed their way out of pitch-dark rubble.

Survivors bear scars and the weight of unanswerable questions. Some grapple with their place in the tragedy. But they also say they have gained resilience, purpose, appreciation and resolve.

“One of the things that I learned,” Jimeno said, “is to never give up.”

‘I was a walking zombie’

Désirée Bouchat paused by one of the inscribed names on the 9/11 memorial: James Patrick Berger. She last saw him on the 101st floor of the trade center’s south tower.

“Some days, it feels like it happened yesterday,” she said.

At first, people figured the plane crash at the north tower was accidental. There was no immediate evacuation order for the south tower. But Berger ushered Bouchat and other Aon Corp. colleagues to the elevators, then turned back to check for more people.

Just as Bouchat exited the south tower, another plane slammed into it. Nearly 180 Aon workers perished, including Berger.

For a while, Bouchat told everyone, including herself, “I’m fine. I’m alive.”

But “I was a walking zombie,” she says now. She was functioning but through a fog that took more than a year to lift.

Bouchat eventually felt that she needed to talk about 9/11. 

She has led about 500 tours for the 9/11 Tribute Museum, a separate entity from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

Bruce Powers has lead Tribute Museum tours, too. And every Sept. 11, Powers repeats his 7-mile walk home from the Pentagon after the attack that killed 184 people, 10 of whom he knew.

The walk, the tours and hearing other guides’ personal stories “serve well in helping me deal with what happened,” said Powers, a now-retired Navy aviation planner.

The public hasn’t fully recognized the losses survivors felt, says Mary Fetchet, who lost her son Brad on 9/11 and founded Voices Center for Resilience, a support and advocacy group for victims’ families, first responders and survivors. “Although they are still living, they’re living in a very different way.”

Emergency medical technician Guy Sanders agreed. 

“You get people telling you, ‘Well, (9/11) happened so long ago. Get over it.’ But it is a trauma,” Sanders said. “It’s not something to be gotten over. It’s something to be addressed.”

‘Surviving is only the first piece of the journey’

Breathing through an oxygen mask in a hospital bed, Wendy Lanski, 51, told herself: “If Osama bin Laden didn’t kill me, I’m not dying of COVID.”

Nearly two decades earlier, the health insurance manager escaped the north tower’s 29th floor and ran, barefoot, through the dust cloud from the south tower’s collapse. Eleven of her Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield colleagues died.

“The only good thing about surviving a tragedy or a catastrophe of any kind is it definitely makes you more resilient,” said Lanski, who was hospitalized with the coronavirus in spring 2020.

But “surviving is only the first piece of the journey,” Lanski said.

She has the twin towers, “9/11/01” and “survivor” tattooed on her ankle. But the attacks also left other marks she didn’t choose.

Images and sounds of falling people and panes of glass are lodged in her memory. She has asked herself: “Why am I here and 3,000 people are not?”

Over time, she accepted not knowing. “But while I’m here, I’ve got to make it count,” Lanski said. 

‘It motivates me to live a better life’

Buried in darkness and 20 feet or more of rubble from both towers, Will Jimeno was ready to die.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department rookie was in searing pain from a fallen wall pinning his left side. Fellow officer Dominick Pezzulo had died next to him. He had yelled for help for hours. He was terribly thirsty.

“If I die today,” he remembers thinking, “at least I died trying to help people.”

We’re going to get out, he told Sgt. John McLoughlin, who was trapped with him.

It was hours — of pushing back pain, thinking of rescues in past disasters, talking to keep alert — before they were found and rescued. Jimeno was freed around 11 p.m., McLoughlin the next morning. Jimeno underwent surgeries and lengthy rehabilitation.

But he says his psychological recovery was harder. It took three years and multiple therapists to help. It also helped to tell his story in talks, the 2006 Oliver Stone movie “World Trade Center” and his two newly released books about coping with trauma.

Sept. 11 “motivates me to live a better life,” Jimeno said. “The way I can honor those we lost and those that were injured is to live a fruitful life, to be an example to others that Sept. 11 did not destroy us.”