Local first responders honored at Valor Awards
BY MICHELLE KEY
PHOTOS BY ED SIKORA FOR THE OBSERVER
OPELIKA— The inaugural Valor Awards event presented by the Opelika Chamber of Commerce was held Thursday, Oct. 26 at The Bottling Plant Event Center in downtown Opelika. Following the meal, the guest speaker, 9/11 survivor Will Jimeno was introduced by Billy Plummer.
Jimeno was a rookie police officer assigned to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Sept. 11, 2001. Jimeno was born in Barranquilla, Columbia, but was brought to the United States when he was only two years old. He said that he always wanted to be a police officer, “a cop.”
“I would watch the old tv shows [such as] ‘Adam-12,’ ‘The Blue Knight’ and … I would watch the black and white movies on war, on Korea, Vietnam, and I would just be amazed at the courage of Americans and how they fought for this country and [its] freedoms,” Jimeno said.
Jimeno said that his dad wanted him to go to college following high school, but Jimeno decided to join the military first. He joined the United States Navy and after serving on the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) for four years, he came back to New Jersey with the dream of becoming a police officer.
“What makes the United States the greatest country on Earth is our freedoms,” Jimeno said. “The freedoms we have here are what make us great; where women can vote, where you can follow your dreams, where it doesn’t matter where you were raised, where you can apply yourself … you can achieve anything you want.”
Over the next six years, Jimeno worked toward becoming a police officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and he graduated from the police academy on Jan. 19, 2001.
He said that in the weeks leading up to 9/11, he was “living his dream.”
“Life was good,” he said. “Sept. 11 rolled around, and it was no different than any other day. … I literally skipped down the stairs because being a cop for me was never work, it was my dream job.”
Jimeno drove the 20-minute drive into Manhattan and prepared to start his day. As he walked outside, he noticed that an entire intersection near him went dark for a split second. He would later realize that this was the shadow of the first plane that flew into the North World Trade Center tower. Within just a few minutes, he received a radio call to return to his command center. Sixteen minutes later, the second plane struck the south tower.
Jimeno, fellow Port Authority officers, Sgt. John McLoughlin and Dominick Pezzulo were part of a group of 20 officers that commandeered a bus and headed to the World Trade Centers in the minutes following the impact of the planes to help evacuate people.
He said that he remembers being scared, but just took off running with his fellow officers to try to render aid.
“I also thought I was a tough guy, but I scared; I was scared,” Jimeno said. “But then I thought about something, I remembered my oath to ‘serve and protect.’ When you take that oath, people are depending on you. One day it could be your family depending on somebody in your community to respond. So, there is no time to be scared, it is time to put that away. I tell kids, ‘Where does courage come from? It comes from overcoming your fears.’”
Jimeno, McLoughlin and Pezzulo were joined by Antonio Rodriguez and Chris Amoroso, as they made their way into the towers. When the South tower fell the men were trapped in the concourse between the two towers. Amoroso and Rodriquez were killed but the other three men survived the initial tower collapse. Pezzulo was the only one who was able to free himself from the debris and started working to free Jimeno. He was trying to free Jimeno when the North Tower fell and later succumbed to injuries he sustained.
For the next 13 hours, Jimeno and McLoughlin were trapped, fighting for their lives under concrete, while fireballs rained down from the opening above them. At one point, the rounds of ammunition in Pezzulo’s service weapon exploded, ricocheting throughout the area.
Jimeno reflected on the hours that he and McLoughlin were trapped together.
“I was buried for 13 [hours] and it’s a miracle that we survived,” he said. “That night I kept thinking about faith, hope and love. The most important part of the story is that evening, while I wanted to die. I wanted to give up. We had been crushed, burnt, shot at, had lost my teammates and I wanted to die. I remember closing my eyes and thanking God … and if I die today, I die as an American and a police officer and I am OK with that, but I am asking for two things God; for one, to let me be there to see my child be born and the second one and you can laugh at this … when I get to heaven, I just want a glass of water.”
He said that while he was praying, he had a vision or a dream of Jesus coming toward him, holding that water and then he snapped out of the vision with a ‘fire in his belly’ to survive.
“I was going to give up and I realize that if I would have given up, I would have given up on my sergeant because nobody could hear him; I got [a] big mouth and they could hear me. If I had given up, I would have given up on my family because I didn’t fight hard enough to [get free]; if I had given up, I would have given up on my country, but most of all, I would have given up on myself. … If you are ever in a position where you have to fight for your life, then you fight until the very end. … You cannot give up, you have to keep going forward, you have to fight.”
McLoughlin was a 48-year-old sergeant and a 21-year veteran of the police force on 9/11. Pezzulo, age 36, had been an officer for only 13 months at the time of his death, having served his community as a teacher for seven years prior to joining the police department and being assigned to the Port Authority. Jimeno, was the rookie officer. He was 33 at the time, was married, had a four-year-old daughter named Bianca and another daughter on the way. There were only 20 survivors pulled from the rubble of the towers and they were two survivors that were dug out from underneath the World Trade Center. Both men underwent many surgeries and long recoveries.
Jimeno has written two books, one for children — ”Immigrant, American, Survivor: A Little Boy Who Grew Up To Be All Three” about his experiences on 9/11.
The movie “World Trade Center” written by Andrea Berloff and directed by Oliver Stone tells the story of the five officers.
• Lee County Emergency Management – Professional of the Year, Austin Jones
• East Alabama EMS – Medic of the Year – Elizabeth Stowe
• Opelika Fire Department – Firefighter of the Year, Sgt. Ronnie Brundage
• Opelika Police Department – Communications Operator of the Year, Gabriella Santiesteban
• Opelika Police Department – Police Officer of the Year, Lt. Alfred White
• Lee County Sheriff’s Office – Dispatcher of the Year- Veronica Kelley
• Lee County Sheriff’s Office – Corrections Office of the Year- Deputy Carter Palmer
• Lee County Sheriff’s Office – Deputy of the Year- Deputy Kendrez Richardson