An Unlikely Hero
The Marine who found two WTC survivors.
"We're over here," they heard.
Two Port Authority police officers, Will Jimeno and Sgt. John McLoughlin, were buried in the center of the World Trade Center ruins, 20 feet below the surface. They could be heard but not seen. By jumping into a larger opening, Karnes could hear Jimeno better. But he still couldn't see him. Karnes sent Thomas to look for help. Then he used his cell phone to call his wife, Rosemary, in Stamford and his sister Joy in Pittsburgh. (He thought they could work the phones and get through to New York police headquarters.)
"Don't leave us," Officer Jimeno pleaded. He later said he feared Karnes' voice would trail away, as had that of another potential rescuer hours earlier. It was now about 7 p.m. and Jimeno and McLoughlin had been trapped for roughly nine hours. Karnes stayed with them, talking to them until help arrived, in the form of Chuck Sereika, a former paramedic with an expired license who put pulled his old uniform out of his closet and came to the site. Ten minutes later, Scott Strauss and Paddy McGee, officers with the elite Emergency Service Unit of the NYPD, also arrived.
The story of how Strauss and Sereika spent three hours digging Jimeno out of the debris, which constantly threatened to collapse, has been well told in the New York Times and elsewhere. At one point, all they had with which to dig out Jimeno were a pair of handcuffs. Karnes stood by, helping pass tools to Strauss, offering his Marine K-Bar knife when it looked as if they might have to amputate Jimeno's leg to free him. (After Jimeno was finally pulled out, another team of cops worked for six more hours to free McLoughlin, who was buried deeper in the pile.)
Karnes left the site that night when Jimeno was rescued and went with him to the hospital. While doctors treated the injured cop, Karnes grabbed a few hours sleep on an empty bed in the hospital psychiatric ward. While he slept, the hospital cleaned and pressed his uniform.
Today, on the anniversary of the attack and the rescue, officers Jimeno and Strauss will be part of the formal "Top Cop" ceremony at the New York City Center Theater. Earlier the two appeared on a nationally televised episode of America's Most Wanted. Jimeno and McLoughlin appeared this week on the Today show. They are heroes.
Today, Dave Karnes will be speaking at the Maranatha Bible Baptist Church in Wilkinsburg, Penn., near where he grew up. He sounds excited, over the phone, talking about the upcoming ceremony. Karnes is a hero, too.
But it's also clear Karnes is a hero in a smaller, less national, less public, less publicized way than the cops and firefighters are heroes. He's hardly been overlooked—the program I work for, 60 Minutes II, interviewed him as part of a piece on Jimeno's rescue—but the great televised glory machine has so far not picked him. Why? One reason seems obvious—the cops and firefighters are part of big, respected, institutional support networks. Americans are grateful for the sacrifices their entire organizations made a year ago. Plus, the police and firefighting institutions are tribal brotherhoods. The firefighters help and support and console each other; the cops do the same. They find it harder to make room for outsiders like Karnes (or Chuck Sereika). And, it must be said, at some macho level it's vaguely embarrassing that the professional rescuers weren't the ones who found the two survivors. While the pros were pulled back out of legitimate caution, the job fell to an outsider, who drove down from Connecticut and just walked onto the burning pile.
Columnist Stewart Alsop once famously identified two rare types of soldiers, the "crazy brave" and the "phony tough." The professionals at Ground Zero—I interviewed dozens in my work as a producer for CBS—were in no way phony toughs. But Karnes does seem a bit "crazy brave." You'd have to be slightly abnormal—abnormally selfless, abnormally patriotic—to do what he did. And some of the same qualities that led Karnes to make himself a hero when it counted may make him less perfect as the image of a hero today.
Officer Strauss tells a story that gets at this. When he was out on the pile a year ago, trying to pull Officer Jimeno free, Strauss shouted orders to his volunteer helpers—"Medic, I need air," or "Marine, get me some water." At one point, in the middle of this exhausting work, Strauss, asked if he could call them by their names to facilitate the process. The medic said he was "Chuck."
Karnes said: "You can call me 'staff sergeant.' "
"That's three syllables!" said Strauss, who needed every bit of energy and every second of time. "Isn't there something shorter?"
Karnes replied: "You can call me 'staff sergeant.' "
Rebecca Liss is an associate producer at CBS's 60 Minutes.