John McLoughlin didn’t even know Will Jimeno’s first name when they rushed to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Both men were pinned under rubble when the buildings collapsed; over the next 13 hours, McLoughlin, now 53, a veteran sergeant with the Port Authority Police Department, and rookie Jimeno, 38, talked to each other to try to stay alive. They spoke with PEOPLE’s Molly Lopez about their ordeal and its retelling in director Oliver Stone’s new movie World Trade Center.
On the scene shortly after the planes hit, Jimeno volunteered to go with McLoughlin into the complex’s below-ground concourse to get equipment they would need for the evacuation effort.
JIMENO: Why did I volunteer? Two reasons. One, that’s why I became a cop: to protect and serve. Second was something I learned in the Navy—know who you’re following into combat, because that person will be the difference between your living and dying. John was experienced.
McLOUGHLIN: Nobody had a thought that the tower was going to come down. I heard what I thought was a loud explosion, and saw the lobby of Tower Two just rolling towards us. I didn’t know the building was collapsing. The only thing I could think to do was run to the freight elevator and hope that the wall of debris would be diverted around us.
JIMENO: That’s why we survived. I saw the fireball and didn’t know what to do. John said, “Run.”
With 20 feet of rubble above them, sporadic fires shot towards the trapped pair. The heat even triggered a nearby handgun and sent bullets whizzing. Although they couldn’t see each other, McLoughlin and Jimeno talked to keep their hopes up.
JIMENO: I told him about having a little baby on the way, and he told me, “I have four kids.” He was in a lot of pain every time he talked. We kept each other going.
McLOUGHLIN: I don’t know how we did it even now. My thoughts were on my family and how bad it would be for them if I didn’t make it out of there. The pain was so severe. My knees were crushed into each other between two pieces of concrete—bone against bone.
Ten hours passed before help arrived.
JIMENO: I heard, “United States Marine Corps, can anybody hear?” I started yelling “8-13!” which means “officer down.” I had to wave for a few minutes before he could see me, because my hand looked like concrete.
McLOUGHLIN: Thank God Will’s got a good set of lungs.
It took three hours to free Jimeno and 12 to extract McLoughlin.
JIMENO: We didn’t know the towers fell. I asked, “Where is everything?” Someone said, “It’s all gone, kid.” That’s the first time I cried.
McLoughlin and Jimeno’s injuries had caused compartment syndrome, a lack of blood circulation that kills tissue and can cause organ failure. Doctors put McLoughlin in a coma for six weeks and operated 30 times. Jimeno underwent eight surgeries in 12 days.
McLOUGHLIN: I don’t know which was worse, the pain after the surgeries or the pain in the hole.
JIMENO: You don’t think you’re gonna live, but on the fourth weekend I finally got to see [my daughter] Bianca. She brought me a pumpkin for Halloween.
Today McLoughlin walks with braces on both legs (he has little feeling below his knees) and still has open wounds near his hip. Jimeno has only partial function in his left foot. Both have been retired since 2004. McLoughlin now enjoys leading his son J.J.’s Boy Scout troop and coaching daughter Erin’s Little League team; Jimeno revels in taking his daughters to gymnastics and karate classes.
JIMENO: We’re fortunate to have time with our families. You realize what it means when they’re like, “Dad, you’re coming today, right?” And you can say, “Yes.”
McLOUGHLIN: We take advantage of what we were given, and live life to the fullest. You have a choice when you go through these experiences: You can live your life as a victim or as a survivor. We’ve chosen to be survivors.