History in the Movies | By Cathy Schultz
Images from that day remain vivid in our memories. But “World Trade Center,” Oliver Stone’s surprisingly apolitical film about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the center, doesn’t dwell on the terribly familiar memory of tall buildings disintegrating on the skyline. Instead, Stone offers us a micro view of that morning, a tale of those on the ground, of men who sought to help despite their own confusion and fear. The film follows two police officers in particular-John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena)-caught in the chaos when a mountain of steel and concrete fell down on them.
We all know the larger story of Sept. 11, of course. But we don’t know this story, a true, ultimately uplifting tale of two cops and their families, trying to survive the impossible, and to make sense of the unimaginable. Here’s a guide to explore the real life in this drama.
Q. McLoughlin and Jimeno identify themselves as PAPD – -Port Authority police. Is that simply a branch of the NYPD?
A. No, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is an independent agency, which maintains and guards New York City’s airports, bridges, tunnels and the bus terminal. Its police force of 1,200 also patrolled the World Trade Center, which was owned and operated by the Port Authority. Thirty-seven PAPD officers died there on Sept. 11.
Q. Once the guys were trapped, what were the later explosions they heard?
A. The other buildings of the Trade Center falling. McLoughlin and Jimeno were trapped when the South Tower fell at 10:05 a.m. Twenty-three minutes later, the North Tower also collapsed, sending fireballs and more deadly debris into the crevice where they were pinned. A similar thing happened hours later, when Building 7 of the World Trade Center collapsed at 5:20 p.m.
Q. Was the intense Marine-the one who found Jimeno in the rubble-real?
A. His story seems improbable, but, by all accounts, Dave Karnes is accurately depicted here. A Marine for 23 years, Karnes began the morning in Connecticut, where he worked as an accountant. Galvanized by the attacks, he left work, picked up his Marine gear and stopped at a barber to get a buzz cut. The deeply religious Karnes then sought out his pastor for prayer, asking, he said in an interview later, “that the Lord would lead me to a survivor.” He arrived at Ground Zero in the early evening, and despite the danger of the still burning, unstable rubble pile, he immediately set out to look for anyone in need of help.
Q. So Karnes was the first to reach McLoughlin and Jimeno?
A. Not quite. The movie skips a frustrating moment when Jimeno’s cries for help were answered by someone, who shouted down asking if a certain person was trapped with them. When Jimeno answered no, the man walked away, despite Jimeno’s pleas that he stay and help them.
Q. McLoughlin and his men were in the lobby of the South Tower, yet didn’t seem to know that a second plane had hit that building almost an hour earlier. Why not?
A. The movie highlights the confusion and miscommunication among rescue workers during the crisis. This was partly due to heavy radio traffic, and partly due to reliance on older radios, which didn’t broadcast well in skyscrapers. But it was also the result of a long feud between New York’s police and fire departments. In the decades preceding 2001, these departments consistently balked at training together or establishing protocol for communication and cooperation in a city-wide emergency. So, despite the best of intentions on Sept. 11, the FDNY, NYPD and the PAPD resorted to habit, and conducted completely separate and uncoordinated operations. Each group used its own distinct radio frequencies, and though the city had bought interagency radios years earlier, these sat unused and forgotten on storage shelves.
The Fire Department paid the greatest price for this communication breakdown. Police helicopters circling the towers repeatedly warned that the upper floors were listing, and the buildings looked in imminent danger of collapse. Police officers got the message and evacuated, warning everyone they met of the need to hurry. But firefighters were deep within the bowels of the towers, with malfunctioning radios, and according to New York Times journalists Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, many seemed unaware of the pressing danger. The numbers seem to back this up: 343 firefighters died that day, while NYPD and PAPD combined deaths totaled 75.
Q. Did Jimeno really ask McLoughlin to send a radio message concerning a name for his unborn daughter?
A. He did. Jimeno and his wife, Allison, had disagreed over names for their child, due in November of 2001. Allison wanted Olivia, a name Jimeno didn’t like. Hours after getting trapped, Jimeno asked McLoughlin to send a radio message requesting the baby be named Olivia. McLoughlin did so, despite knowing his radio was broken.
Q. What’s a good book for more on McLoughlin’s and Jimeno’s story?
A. “102 Minutes,” by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, is a gripping account of the struggle for survival inside the towers, focusing both on those who survived as well as those who didn’t.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D. is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies