The Marine Who Found Two WTC Survivors

Analysis of breaking news events.
Sept. 11 2014 7:10 AM

An Unlikely Hero

The Marine who found two WTC survivors.

David Karnes
Dave Karnes

Photo courtesy Marines magazine/Department of Defense

On the first anniversary of 9/11, with the attacks still fresh in the minds of many Americans, Slate shared the story of a retired Marine who responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center and found two survivors. In honor of the anniversary, the article is reprinted below.

Only 12 survivors were pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center after the towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, despite intense rescue efforts. Two of the last three to be located and saved were Port Authority police officers. They were not discovered by a heroic firefighter, or a rescue worker, or a cop. They were discovered by Dave Karnes.

Karnes hadn't been near the World Trade Center. He wasn't even in New York when the planes hit the towers. He was in Wilton, Conn., working in his job as a senior accountant with Deloitte Touche. When the second plane hit, Karnes told his colleagues, "We're at war." He had spent 23 years in the Marine Corps infantry and felt it was his duty to help. Karnes told his boss he might not see him for a while.

Then he went to get a haircut.

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The small barbershop in Stamford, Conn., near his home, was deserted. "Give me a good Marine Corps squared-off haircut," he told the barber. When it was done, he drove home to put on his uniform. Karnes always kept two sets of Marine fatigues hanging in his closet, pressed and starched. "It's kind of weird to do, but it comes in handy," he says. Next Karnes stopped by the storage facility where he kept his equipment—he'd need rappelling gear, ropes, canteens of water, his Marine Corps K-Bar knife, and a flashlight, at least. Then he drove to church. He asked the pastor and parishioners to say a prayer that God would lead him to survivors. A devout Christian, Karnes often turned to God when faced with decisions.

Finally, Karnes lowered the convertible top on his Porsche. This would make it easier for the authorities to look in and see a Marine, he reasoned. If they could see who he was, he'd be able to zip past checkpoints and more easily gain access to the site. For Karnes, it was a "God thing" that he was in the Porsche—a Porsche 911—that day. He'd only purchased it a month earlier—it had been a stretch, financially. But he decided to buy it after his pastor suggested that he "pray on it." He had no choice but to take it that day because his Mercury was in the shop. Driving the Porsche at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour, he reached Manhattan—after stopping at McDonald's for a hamburger—in the late afternoon.

His plan worked. With the top off, the cops could see his pressed fatigues, his neatly cropped hair, and his gear up front. They waved him past the barricades. He arrived at the site—"the pile"—at about 5:30. Building 7 of the World Trade Center, a 47-story office structure adjacent to the fallen twin towers, had just dramatically collapsed. Rescue workers had been ordered off the pile—it was too unsafe to let them continue. Flames were bursting from a number of buildings, and the whole site was considered unstable. Standing on the edge of the burning pile, Karnes spotted … another Marine dressed in camouflage. His name was Sgt. Thomas. Karnes never learned his first name, and he's never come forward in the time since.

Together Karnes and Thomas walked around the pile looking for a point of entry farther from the burning buildings. They also wanted to move away from officials trying to keep rescue workers off the pile. Thick, black smoke blanketed the site. The two Marines couldn't see where to enter. But then "the smoke just opened up." The sun was setting and through the opening Karnes, for the first time, saw clearly the massive destruction. "I just said 'Oh, my God, it's totally gone.' " With the sudden parting of the smoke, Karnes and Thomas entered the pile. "We just disappeared into the smoke—and we ran."

They climbed over the tangled steel and began looking into voids. They saw no one else searching the pile—the rescue workers having obeyed the order to leave the area. "United States Marines," Karnes began shouting. "If you can hear us, yell or tap!"

Over and over, Karnes shouted the words. Then he would pause and listen. Debris was shifting and parts of the building were collapsing further. Fires burned all around. "I just had a sense, an overwhelming sense come over me that we were walking on hallowed ground, that tens of thousands of people could be trapped and dead beneath us," he said.

After about an hour of searching and yelling, Karnes stopped.

"Be quiet," he told Thomas, "I think I can hear something."

He yelled again. "We can hear you. Yell louder." He heard a faint muffled sound in the distance.

"Keep yelling. We can hear you." Karnes and Thomas zeroed in on the sound.

"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 cellphone 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 Department headquarters.)

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"Don't leave us," 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, Pa., 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.

Strauss tells a story that gets at this. When he was out on the pile a year ago, trying to pull 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.

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