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 weretoodifficult 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 havebeen 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.