A Marine Vet Put His Uniform Back on and Rushed to Ground Zero. Here’s His Story

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Jason Thomas 9/11 One Day in America
Marine Jason Thomas felt duty-bound to head to Ground Zero to help when he heard about the attacks. He was searching the rubble when he located Port Authority officer Will Jimeno and helped rescue him. (National Geographic/Stefan Wiesan)

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jason Thomas planned to drop his young daughter off with his mom and head to school at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. He’d just left the Marine Corps in August.

When he arrived at mom’s house and saw the news, he grabbed his uniform bag out of his trunk and headed toward the crisis, determined to put his Corps training to use in a moment of national crisis.

Thomas is a key figure in the National Geographic Channel’s epic, six-part documentary series “9/11: One Day in America.” The program, made to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks, aims to tell the story of the historic day by zooming in on the personal experiences of men and women who lived through it.

“9/11: One Day in America” will air over four consecutive nights with limited commercial interruption, beginning on Sunday, Aug. 29, at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT. A single-double length episode will air on Sunday, followed by back-to-back episodes on Monday and Tuesday. The final episode airs Wednesday. All will begin streaming the day after airing on Hulu, and NatGeo will rebroadcast the entire series on Sept. 10-11, 2021.

Made in collaboration with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, each episode aims to emphasize both the individual acts of heroism and the deeply personal scars left on survivors and the families of those who perished. If you’ve ever visited the museum in New York City, think of the documentary as an expanded version of the heartbreaking wall of family photos that elevate the memorial to something far more affecting than the names on a plaque we’re used to seeing at other commemoration sites.

Jason Thomas tells his story in the final episode, which is set to premiere on Wednesday, Sept. 1. The program follows Port Authority police officer Will Jimeno, former paramedic Chuck Sereika and Thomas throughout that day. Their lives intersect in a powerful way after darkness falls on Ground Zero.

Sereika’s story is every bit as powerful as the others. A recovering drug addict, he missed a phone call from his sister, and she left a message that said she just knew he was down at the site, helping the victims. He wasn’t, but he didn’t want to tell his family that he didn’t help, so he went to Ground Zero and began combing through the debris to look for survivors of the collapsed towers.

Wait a minute, some of you may be asking, “Isn’t this the same story that Vietnam veteran and director Oliver Stone told in his 2006 movie 'World Trade Center,’ the one with Michael Peña as Officer Jimeno and Nicolas Cage as fellow officer John McLoughlin?”

Yes, it is. And it’s an amazing testament to the kind of Marine that Thomas was that he’d never sought credit for his role in rescuing the Port Authority officers. That changed when he saw a commercial for Stone’s movie.

 

Over the course of the day, Thomas partnered with fellow Marine vet Dave Karnes to look for survivors. In Stone’s movie, Karnes is played by Michael Shannon and Thomas is played by Tom Cruise’s cousin, William Mapother.

The moment was a shock for Thomas. “When I first got that glimpse of the trailer, I was reliving 9/11,” he said. “I hadn’t shared my story with anyone. I come from a large and tight-knit family, and I didn't even share it with them. So I was sitting there having all this bottled up in myself, and all those emotions just came back out almost out of nowhere and rushed back in. It was pretty tough.”

Thomas had an aunt who worked in talk radio, and she convinced him to share his story with the world. “My aunt told me that if I would like to get my story out, it's probably best to do it right now because things are moving along pretty fast. America wants to know, and historians who are writing history need to get it correct,” Thomas said. “It wasn't until several days later before I made my decision to share. I have five children who were all young and innocent, and I’d wanted to protect them. I also knew that sharing would be very emotional for me.”

 

Fifteen years later, Thomas is fully on the record in “9/11: One Day in America.” You can tell from watching that it’s not easy for him to relive the events of that day, and he obviously was struggling with details of his memories during a long conversation with Military.com.

Movies, television shows and even history books tend to portray acts of heroism as triumphant victories over enemies or adversity. The reality is that bravery extracts a toll on the men and women who step up in a crisis. Thomas and his fellow heroes may have acted bravely that day, but it’s important to recognize their bravery as they choose to remember the details of 9/11 in honoring those we lost and educating everyone who didn’t live through that day.

Telling His Story

Thomas says the decision to tell his story to NatGeo wasn’t a difficult one. “Each year coming up to 9/11 can just be overwhelming when it comes to interviews,” he said. “I have to decide if I can put myself on that emotional roller coaster. However, I know that the National Geographic does an amazing job on whatever they do. They've been around for forever. So for me, it was a broad platform, and I didn't mind sharing my experience. I knew they would ask some really good questions and pull information from me that I at times tend to cover up and shy away from.”

On the morning of Sept. 11, Thomas’ decision to run toward the danger was automatic once he realized what was happening in the city. “After I saw the television, I told Mom that I was going to head to Manhattan and assist,” he said. “And she was apprehensive. I understand. Mom just wants to protect me. But my mom always told me and the military had instilled into me that you are your brother's keeper. Never leave your brother behind.”

A Lucky Break

 

Miraculously, Thomas’ procrastination in squaring away his uniform turned out to be a gift to his mission that day. “I ran to the trunk of my car; I had my military uniform inside. I was just in the middle of a move, and I'm a little bit embarrassed every time I tell this story because my military uniform was in the trunk of my car in a sea bag for weeks,” Thomas admitted.

“Every time I would pull up in front of my home, I would jump out the car and think I should get my military uniform in the house and get it all squared away. But I'd be carrying my daughter and think that I'll come back and get it. And I never did.

“I like to say God works in mysterious ways,” Thomas said. “I now feel there was a reason that I didn’t remove my uniform from the trunk. I threw it on, and I hustled to drive into Manhattan.”

Racing to Manhattan

Ground Zero 9/11
An aerial view of ground zero burning. (Photo Credit: NIST)

This is where you should imagine Thomas pushing his way through traffic, honking his horn to get around folks who have no idea whether they should turn back or head on into Manhattan. The uniform definitely helped convince people to let him through, even if he was on a self-assigned solo mission.

“Well, as I'm racing down the West Side Highway, I see an NYPD car coming up on me pretty fast with three or four unmarked black cars right behind it. They just blow by me. At the time, I had a black car with tinted windows,” Thomas said. “So I jumped behind them, and we're racing to get to the towers and we're less than a quarter of a mile away.

“I looked up, and I could see the towers collapsing. And you can hear the bang, bang, bang, that loud noise like as if and then you hear a lot of crumbling. So you hear the bangs, but you'll also hear the crumbling of the debris, and you hear a lot of shouting and crying and just all that noise. And I remember just pulling over to the side of the road and jumping out of my car, and I see this debris coming at me, and it sounds like a freight train.”

After covering himself as the debris floated over the street, Thomas made his way to Ground Zero. “There was debris, chunks of glass falling from buildings and making this horrific sound when it hit,” he said. “Men and women were crying and running in the opposite direction. You had our first responders, some of them running away from the site and trying to get out. And I found myself running in that direction of the pile of rubble.

Helping the Injured

“The first thing that I really zoomed in on were people who were sitting on the curb and just appeared to be out of breath and in need of assistance. So I would pull them out of harm's way and get them toward the middle of the street. I would call for help as well.”

There were others on the street who wanted to help. “There were so many brave men and women who came to their rescue,” he said. “I did that for a great deal of time. As I ended up moving on a little further toward another pile of rubble, what really got me were the men and women laying in the middle of the street, which blew my mind.”

What Thomas saw at this point would change his life forever and eventually inspire him to join the Air Force a few years later. “I was not prepared for any of this. I don't think my training with the Marines had prepared me to really assess medically and, and that was hurtful. I would walk up to them and I would say, ‘Sir, ma'am, are you OK?’ I wanted to check everyone out. I thought some of them just were out of breath or maybe got struck by something but there was no movement from any of them.

“I came across this one male. He looked as if he was someone's grandfather, white male with silver hair and he's on his back. I ran up to him and I didn't get any response. So I went to check his pulse, and I didn't get anything at all. That, for me, is really very emotional. Because he's someone's grandfather, someone's husband.

“As I'm assessing him, I look up and see that he has this huge dent in his head. And it was weird, because I didn't see any blood at all. But I did see this crater-size dent in his head. And I just knew that he was gone. I remember putting a blanket on top of him. I said a prayer for him, and I moved on.”

Into the Hot Zone

Will Jimeno
Will Jimeno was a Port Authority officer and became buried fifty feet under rubble when the South Tower collapsed. That evening, Marine Jason Thomas and paramedic Chuck Sereika organized an extraordinary rescue effort which against all odds successfully freed Will. (National Geographic/Brandon Widener)

When it came time to enter the Ground Zero site, even the bravest civilians who were trying to help turned back. Thomas was determined to push on. Eventually, he met fellow Marine Dave Karnes and the two of them began a systematic search through the rubble. Once they heard the voice of Will Jimeno, Thomas went into the hole to assist and found that the officer’s leg was trapped.

“9/11: One Day in America” tells this part of the story in detail and from several different perspectives, so let’s pick up with Thomas at the point when Jimeno has been released and carried to safety.

After the Rescue

“I knew the mission wasn't accomplished because we had another person in that hole,” he said. “Will was so concerned about his partner, John McLoughlin, and he kept telling us the entire time that his partner was in this hole and that he wasn’t talking.

“He was very concerned and emotional, as everyone was in that hole. But everyone dug and dug and dug to try to get to John McLoughlin. Will told me that he had passed away three times while in that hole, and an angel came and revived him all three times and brought him back to life. I remember him telling me about his family and his daughter. And that he and his wife were expecting.

“I remember just continuing to dig for John McLoughlin, and I just couldn't do it anymore,” Thomas said. “I was wet and hypothermic, and I physically could not do it anymore. I ended up pulling myself out of the hole, because I didn't want to become a liability. I just didn't want to take away from the mission. One of the most guilty moments ever in my life was pulling myself out of the hole and walking away from a mission that wasn't accomplished.

“Because I had promised that I would see these guys out. but the only one I did see out was Will Jimeno. But John was still trapped in a deeper crevice.”

Take a minute to think about Thomas’ actions. A Marine got himself into lower Manhattan on the most chaotic day in its history, fought through falling debris to the Ground Zero site and teamed up with another Marine for an independent search that saved the lives of two Port Authority police officers. When he was physically spent, he regretted that he had to leave the scene before the mission was accomplished.

World Trade Center wreckage 9/11
Wreckage from World Trade Center at ground zero on September 11, 2001. (Photo Credit: FEMA)

Thomas tried to collect himself before heading back to Long Island. “I walked back to a lobby of one of the buildings that I had helped set up as a medical area,” he said. “So I went back to that area, and I sat down. One of the ladies who was there came running over to me and told me to sit down, sit down, sit down. I can only imagine how I looked.

“All I remember is this smell of burning flesh as the water hit the ash. That smell just came to life for some crazy reason. I don’t think I've shared that either, but the smell just was that much more intense.

“She got me cleaned up and I sat there for probably 15 more minutes just trying to gather myself and walk back to my car that’s covered in about six inches of ash,” Thomas said. “It looked like snow. I remember taking my hand and wiping across it. It was so hot to the touch that I went to the trunk of my car and got out the snow brush to remove the ash.

“I remember finally getting into my car. I was so exhausted and so beat up, and I just wanted to go to sleep right there. But I was like, let me just go home. My wife worked in the city so I want to know everything about her day. I got home around 6 a.m.”

Thomas went back and helped search the site for the next 20 days before he decided that he needed to stay home and help his family recover from the trauma of 9/11. In that entire three-week span, he never gave an interview to take credit for his role in Jimeno and McLoughlin’s rescue. He was just a Marine on a mission.

Back to Service

As the years passed, his desire to return to service only grew. “I joined the Marine Corps in 1996, got out in 2001,” he said. “I had a break in service for nine years but felt like I still wanted to serve. I decided that I was going to join the Air Force to get into the medical field, because of what had occurred on 9/11.”

“I had that guilt of not being able to help the men and women who were laying in the street that day. Even though I checked their carotid pulse, I always wondered if I was doing it 100% correctly. That plagued me for years. So I decided, after taking a test, there was one opening for medical, and I felt that it would be best if I learned a little bit about the medical field. So I decided to join and this is my 11th year, and I'm a master sergeant for the Air Force Reserves. And I love what I do.”

Many first responders have developed serious health issues caused by the toxic air quality at the Ground Zero site. Thomas counts himself lucky and shares a heartbreaking story about the respirator he used that day.

“I don't think I wore a mask, at least in the morning,” he said. “That afternoon, I put one on and ran into a firefighter and he said, “Hey, these paper masks are useless. He had an extra respirator, and he said, ‘This belonged to one of my good friends, and he's not going to need it anymore.’ And I had no clue of what he meant until later on, later on when I had the opportunity to really reflect back on that statement.

“This is actually the first time I've shared that story. I do not have any medical or breathing issues at all, thank God. It's just unfortunate that 9/11 has affected so many men, women and families when it comes to the conditions on that day. You hear how cancer is plaguing those first responders, and it’s so shameful.”

The six episodes of “9/11: One Day in America” present one of the most in-depth examinations of that day we’ve seen to date. Thomas is on camera for less than 10 minutes in the entire series, and the filmmakers could tell only a sliver of his story.

Every person who participated in the documentary has an equally complicated story, and there are thousands more who have never told their stories to anyone. Jason Thomas and “9/11: One Day in America” offer powerful reminders that it’s not just the 2,977 people killed that day who should be remembered as we observe the anniversary each year.

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