A Hero to Mineola, A Hero to All
Scott Strauss' 9/11 Heroics Are Part of Oliver Stone's New FilmBy Joe Rizza
In the two-square-mile suburban Village of Mineola, nestled in the heart of Nassau County, about 25 miles from Ground Zero, those who know Scott Strauss already know he is a hero. But, on August 9, when Oliver Stone's latest film, World Trade Center, opens, the rest of the nation will know.
The successful rescue effort of Strauss and his fellow rescue workers played a major roll on the nation's darkest day and is now depicted in the new film, which opens today nationwide.
A Little League baseball coach, Boy Scout leader and former chief of the Mineola Fire Department, Strauss is always one to give away his time for the sake of his hometown. But on September 11, 2001, Strauss, then an emergency service police officer, was willing to give his life. Buried deep beneath the rubble that was once the majestic Twin Towers, Strauss was among three men desperately trying to free Port Authority Police Officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, two men he had never even met.
Stone's film will take Strauss as well as those who experienced that day back to Ground Zero. But rather than the horror of September 11, 2001 being the central point of the plot, the film will focus on the courage, sacrifice and perseverance of the trapped officers Jimeno (played by Michael Pêna) and Sgt. McLoughlin (played by Oscar winner Nicholas Cage), their families and their rescuers.
While part of the the film centers on Jimeno and McLoughlin being pulled from the depths of the rubble to safety with Strauss being a central figure, it is a story, as the movie poster claims, about courage and survival.
"It's exciting because we have an opportunity to do something special in honoring the people who gave their lives. At the same time, it's tough because of the hit we took that day," said Jimeno, who was a 33-year-old at the time of September 11.
The film's writer, Andrea Berloff, saw a bigger picture than the destruction that reigned down on Manhattan that day, according to Jimeno, who believes Berloff saw, in the story of Jimeno and McLoughlin, hope and love and how people come together in a time of tragedy. As Jimeno says, "We're here because of the love and the heroism of so many people from our families, our rescue workers, our doctors, just total strangers that supported us."
September 11, 2001 was like most late summer weekdays with blue skies and tranquil air. Men and women went to work not knowing the tragedy that would occupy not only that day, but, for those fortunate enough to survive, the long days that followed.
On that day, Jimeno, McLoughlin and three other Port Authority police officers were in the concourse of the World Trade Center when the collapse of the South Tower caused them to be buried.
Jimeno is an optimistic person, but even he made his peace with God. "There was one point that even as a human being you have to say this is pretty much it," he said.
Jimeno dug down deep and gained the motivation to continue to hope. He believed he owed it to the rescue workers who were trying to free him. He took comfort in the knowledge that the men like Strauss weren't going to leave him buried.
"It's going to be emotional. It's going to be a hard movie for a lot of people to watch, including me," said the 43-year-old Strauss, a tall, balding, blue-eyed man whose presence commands attention. "I couldn't watch the filming of some of it."
Strauss admits it's all kind of surreal. One day he's answering fire alarms in the village he has called home since he was a year old; the next day, he's consulting with Oliver Stone and producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher on a re-created Ground Zero set in California, giving input into an historical venture. Who would know better than the men who were there? Strauss, though, isn't basking in the limelight of having heartthrob actor Stephen Dorff portray him in the movie nor does he talk about himself and his actions on September 11 without a sense of uneasiness. While those who know Strauss, already knew he was a hero before September 11, they also know that he is probably the most humble and unassuming person one could ever meet. He's like Clark Kent without the glasses or the awkwardness.
"I think the only thing I've ever heard Scott brag about is his kids. We may view him as a hero, but knowing Scott, he probably just considered it a rough day at work," said childhood friend George Durham.
If it were up to Strauss, he would leave the story of his heroics on September 11, 2001 buried beneath the rubble of the South and North Towers of the World Trade Center. In fact, neither Strauss nor Jimeno think of themselves as heroes; they simply think of themselves as men who were doing their jobs.
The movie, Strauss reminds us, is not about him - it's about Jimeno and McLoughlin, who were trapped under the rubble of the towers only because they were brave enough to attempt to save others.
Strauss, of course, had his trepidations about being part of a film about September 11, but Jimeno convinced him. "I didn't want to take part in it in the beginning. I thought they were going to Hollywood-ize it, turn it into something it wasn't," he said.
Strauss met with Stone and the film's producers in Manhattan. Still, he didn't have a good feeling about being a part of the film, but he figured that it would be better to have some input and decided to be a consultant for the film. "I'm so glad that I did," he said just months before the film's opening. "Paramount Pictures and Oliver Stone did an extremely good job in making this as accurate as possible."
For Strauss, the pain of September 11 has been eased somewhat by the knowledge that he was able to help pull Jimeno to safety. The two men shared more in common than the predicament they found themselves in on that day. Buried beneath "the pile," where each breath and movement could have shifted the weight of the debris, crushing the officers and effectively ending the rescue effort; each man had everything to lose.
Strauss had built a successful life for himself in Mineola with his wife Pat and sons Bryan and Christopher. Jimeno was in the prime of his life with his wife Allison (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) seven months pregnant with the couple's second child, and his 4-year-old daughter Bianca waiting at home.
On September 11, Strauss was among the rescue workers combing the devastation, looking for lives to save. Strauss and fellow officers were climbing around the rubble pile when, at about 5:30 p.m., 7 World Trade Center collapsed. The rescue workers were pulled off the pile and Strauss and other emergency service officers then began searching buildings on the south side of Liberty Street. Word came that there were two men stuck in the pile of rubble.
Strauss, back on the pile, dropped down into a seven-foot hole, where he found David Karnes, the Marine who discovered Jimeno and McLoughlin buried beneath the rubble. Chuck Sereika, a former paramedic who had his share of life's troubles, put on his paramedic sweatshirt and rushed to the scene. Sereika (played by Frank Whaley), a civilian, also jeopardized his life to assist in rescue efforts.
Strauss, Paddy McGee, another emergency service police officer (played by Stoney Westmoreland) and Sereika immersed themselves in the rubble as they began their rescue of Jimeno and McLoughlin.
Before going in, though, Strauss said a silent goodbye to his family. "I told my wife and kids I love them. I told my kids to be good in school because I didn't think I was coming out. Chuck didn't think he was going to come out and neither did Paddy. We were going in there basically to die. Building Five is collapsing. Building Seven came down an hour earlier. We were immersing ourselves in this rubble pile," he said.
Men like Jimeno and McLoughlin and the men who saved them - Strauss, McGee and Sereika - didn't worry about what they have to lose. In fact, to the humble Strauss, who is now retired from the force, going into the rubble to save lives was an obligation. "That's what cops and firemen do. If it cost me my life, it costs me my life. I can't say, 'not me, you go' and then I go home to my wife and kids. It doesn't go that way," he said.
Jimeno said he still apologizes to his wife that he didn't think of his family before volunteering to go into the building that day. But, he said, "I saw people in distress and that's why I wear the uniform."
Buried beneath 20 to 30 feet of rubble, maneuvering in small openings, each breath or movement could have shifted the weight of the rubble ending each man's chance to ever see his family again. Strauss had already seen one of Jimeno's fellow officers and academy classmate, Dominick Puzzulo, lying dead in the rubble. Puzzulo, who was with Jimeno and McLoughlin, managed to free himself and was working on getting Jimeno out when the second tower collapsed, crushing him.
Crawling with his hands above his head on his side, Strauss scratched at the rubble to get to Jimeno. The only thing visible to Strauss of the husky Port Authority officer was his head, his right arm and part of his right leg.
In the hole, there was a fair share of jokes told and quips exchanged, all in an effort to keep spirits up. Each man had a job to do. Jimeno says his was to keep his mouth shut and suck up the pain.
After about three hours, Strauss helped pull Jimeno out of the hole. Because of exhaustion and covered in dust and debris, he was relieved by a fresh team that pulled McLoughlin to safety. "All I wanted to do in the world was take a breath of fresh air," Strauss said. "We were in there that long because every time I thought we had Will out, something else was pinning him in there. We unburied him enough to pull him out."
Jimeno's injuries are not as severe as McLoughlin's but he still walks with a limp and his leg looks as though a shark had attacked it. McLoughlin walks with an awkward gait, but both are thankful to be alive.
"I'm fortunate all around. I always thank Scottie and the rescue workers because I'm here because of them," said Jimeno.
Nearly five years later, Strauss reflects back on September 11 and saving Jimeno. Enabling the now 38-year-old to see his wife and children again has alleviated some of the anguish of September 11. "I think that saved me mentally," he said.
Strauss and Jimeno may not have known each other before September 11, 2001 (Strauss says they met "in the hole"). Now, they are part of each other's families.
Jimeno called Strauss when his second daughter, Olivia, who is now 4 years old, was born to thank him. It's not uncommon for Jimeno to call Strauss and after he reads his daughters a bedtime story or attends one of their events at school to simply say, 'If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be there.'
"You can't put a price on that. That is incredible," said Strauss.
Jimeno lets Strauss know he does something he thought he would never do again. For instance, teaching his daughter how to ride a bicycle. "He put his life on the line. I think it's only right that a man who put his life on the line can see what the end product is. It's just the right thing to do," he said.
In California, on the set of World Trade Center, Ground Zero has been a re-created in stunningly accurate fashion. Scott Strauss, the kid who grew up in Mineola, the kid who became an Eagle Scout, the kid who was a junior firefighter and rose through the ranks of the Mineola Fire Department all the way to chief, is arguing with Oliver Stone on how a scene should play out. It is indeed surreal.
"The movie, hopefully, will be received. I think it was done right," Strauss said.
It's still hard at times for Strauss to talk about September 11. "It was a bad day. It really was. This is a good thing that came out of that day - these two guys we brought home, which is what the movie is about. It's about how they got through the day and how their families went through the day. It's not about the rescue. The rescue is a very small part of it. It's [about] what these guys drew on to help each other survive through that day and the torment their families went through not knowing," he said.
Jimeno hopes those who see the film will go home and hug their families a little bit tighter. "You realize what's more important in life," he said.
As Strauss says, there were probably a thousand stories that could have been told about September 11, 2001. Oliver Stone, though, chose the story of the rescue of Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, perhaps because it captured two central themes of that day -the courage of the men who decided that on a day, when 3,000 lives had been lost, the value of two is worth risking everything for and the will to survive to see their loved ones again.
While thousands of lives were lost on September 11, 2001, Stone's film chooses to focus on the ones that were saved. As Strauss points out, "you need to appreciate your family and friends because life is fragile and can be taken from you in an instant...If you have a strong family bond, you can overcome most anything."