Surviving a true disaster

Katie Roth

Continued from 08/31/06 Issue – The story of a true hero

Scott Strauss climbed into the hole, Sereika and McGee following right after him. Karnes stayed where he was.

“We were twisting ourselves around high beams and rebar and pulling ourselves through and squeezing into these really tight areas and we were actually enmeshing ourselves into this pile,” Scott said. “There was no room to turn around if we needed to get out.” The three rescue workers got down to one wall and then made a left, where they found Officer Dominick Pezzulo dead, crushed by falling debris of the South Tower.

The men had to climb over Pezzulo and through another very small opening to get to Will. Crawling hands first, the men saw Will barely moving.

“He looked like he was poured out of a dump truck. He had this huge cement slab on his chest which went on forever,” Strauss recalls.

The only parts of Officer Jimeno that Strauss could see were his face, his right arm and a part of his right leg. Will could move his right arm as he had used it to pull a pipe to make noise to let the Marines know where he was. He had also pulled his handcuffs off his gun belt to scrape away at the rubble, but after he dropped the handcuffs, he was unable to reach them.

“He was completely encased in this stuff,” Strauss said. “I was laying on my side, scratching away at him, trying to clear some rubble away as to open up this area. Paddy is now digging his way out because there is no way that once we free Will, to get him out because we can’t go out the way we came in.”

“The Marine who’s up above us, he’s digging down and creates an opening where he ends up sliding water bottles down to us and an oxygen mask from up above. When I couldn’t take it any longer being in that hole, I would back out, and Chuck would go in. And when he couldn’t take it anymore, I would go back in. The two of us were tag-teaming to free Will.”

Strauss remembers that Will was willing to be skipped over and wanted his partner to be taken care of first. “He kept saying, ‘You’ve got to get to my partner,’ and I’m thinking he doesn’t know that his partner is dead,” Strauss said. “Dominick Pezzulo is dead; you can see him but maybe he doesn’t realize that he is. I’m not telling him that he’s dead because I don’t want him to lose hope. He had been in there 12, maybe 14 hours. So I don’t want him to lose any more hope than he has already lost.”

Strauss continues to scratch away at the rubble when he remembers someone else that was not Chuck, Paddy or Will asking them how they were doing. “I was like, ‘Who is that?’ and Will told me that that was his partner. I told him that I thought Pezzulo was his partner, and Will’s like, ‘No, John McLoughlin. Sergeant McLoughlin, he’s buried farther in there.'”

Strauss knew McLoughlin from a week-long training course that they had both attended in New Jersey. McLoughlin and Strauss talked for a few minutes, and the sergeant let Scott know that his injuries were extensive.

All three continued working on Will. Fires had overtaken Building Five and Building Four, and the flames had begun to overtake where Strauss, Paddy and Chuck were working. Firefighters on top of the pile attempted to help by coming in with hoses and trying to put the fire out, but in reality it just made it worse.

The men were gagging, dry-heaving and choking on the debris that the spray of the hoses aggravated. It took time but eventually Scott was able to remove Will’s air-pack which gave them a few inches of room to try and pull Will from the debris. However, it would not be that easy.

“Once we got the air pack off, I took what we call extenders, which are these things that we use when we climb bridges. It’s basically a piece of webbing with two hooks on the end. I take these extenders, I stuff them around his chest and up behind his shoulders so I can pull him out,” Strauss said. “So I’m yanking on him and I can’t get him out. I’m thinking that I don’t have enough strength – I’ve been working since Monday night and went straight through to now. Chuck climbs in the hole with me, and he and I are chest to chest. We are trying to yank Will out with those extenders and Will’s screaming. John is yelling, ‘Hang on Will, hang on.’ I kept saying, ‘Will, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to get you out.’ He was like, ‘You just get me out; I don’t care what you do. You got to get to John.’ All he was worried about was his partner.”

To make matters worse, Will’s leg was pinned down by a cinderblock wall that collapsed with the towers. The rescuers thought of trying both a para-tech, which is a rescue grade jackhammer, and air-jack bags, which they use to get trains off people. Both items were too big to fit in the small area. The jaws of life were not an option either, that is until someone suggested using a battery operated one, which was much more compact than the type Strauss had used in the past.

“The opening was real small. I push this thing up against Will and now I have to push it over him to get it to the other side,” Strauss said. “Will’s screaming, and I keep apologizing. I’m stuffing it through and I get it onto the other side near his left arm. Now, I have to climb on top of him to set the tool up. I’m leaning on top of him, using him for leverage to jam the tool into the right spot. I got it into the right spot.”

“There’s chaos above us; people are yelling for the fire to be put out, for people to move out of the way and for us to hurry up. Paddy is like, ‘Do you hear that?’ I answered, ‘Yes, tell them to shut up.’ I tell Chuck and Paddy, ‘Guys, listen, I don’t know what this is going to do, tell those guys up there to shut up on top.’ I need to be able to hear if things start to slip or start to happen, because I can’t see. I’ve got to go on what I can hear. If it’s going to kill us all, I’ve got to stop.”

“So Paddy yells back to shut up, and you could have heard a pin drop. So I’m laying on top of Will and I say, ‘Listen Will, this is straight-up how it is. If it works, you’re out of here. If it doesn’t and we’re crushed, I’m right here with you and there are a hundred guys up there who know exactly where we are. You’re not going to have to go through this again.'”

The first try did not work with the battery operated tool, but after cribbing it up, the jaws provided them with enough room to pull Will’s leg out. Or so they thought. “We tell the others above that he’s freed, we hook the straps back up and start yanking on him and he starts screaming that his foot is stuck. Again, we only had this tiny little flashlight to see through the smoke and the dust,” Strauss said.

“Will’s foot has rebar trapping it, and I couldn’t get anything around it,” Scott said. “I get down to his foot and I can’t pull his foot out. Will can barely breathe and neither can I. Chuck has moved into the spot that I had been in and is working his way down to Will’s foot, but then can’t get any farther. Will says, ‘Cut my foot off, cut my leg off, you’ve got to get to McLoughlin.'” Strauss told Will that he would not cut off his leg and that he was coming out of the debris in one piece.

Luckily for Will, Paddy McGee devised a plan to use a piece of rebar to get Will’s foot out and it was a success. Will’s leg was severely injured, but the men pulled him out and put him into a stokes basket to be brought up to the surface. Strauss climbed out after Will was taken out, and a fresh team relieved the three heroes to rescue John, which in total took another seven hours. “All I wanted to do was take a breath of fresh air. I couldn’t in the hole,” Strauss said.

Strauss was taken to Bellevue Hospital and was kept there until 8 a.m. Wednesday morning because his oxygen and blood levels needed to be closely monitored. Upon being discharged, Strauss headed right back to the scene.

Today, Scott Strauss is the Associate Director of Corporate Security for North Shore – Long Island Jewish Health System in New York. He and Will remain close. “Will is an incredibly grateful guy. He calls me all the time. He’ll call me on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and says ‘Scott, I was just at the park with the kids and I just want to say thank you for bringing me home,'” Scott said.

“And little Olivia comes over and she calls me Uncle Scott. The first words out of her mouth every time I see her are ‘Thanks for bringing Daddy home.’ It’s just incredible.”

In May 2005, Will called Strauss to tell him that Paramount was going to make the film that has since been released across the country. He took part in the making of Stone’s film in order for it to be an accurate depiction of what actually happened in the rescue of Will and John.

Originally, Strauss wanted no part in the film, feeling like it was going to become a political conspiracy film much like Stone’s 1991 film “JFK.” One of the producers, Michael Shamberg, promised Strauss that the film was going to focus on Will, John and the rescue-not the terrorism or the war.

“I talked to my wife and my retired partner, Gerry, and they both told me that this movie was going to be done with or without me,” Scott said. “They told me that I might as well be on board with them and make it accurate. They told me if you don’t and you see this movie and it’s stupid, you’re going to regret not having helped. It was one of the better things that I have done in my life. Oliver Stone put a huge amount of trust into us.”

Strauss also believes that the film has not been released too early. “I don’t think it’s too short a time since it happened. This is not a movie about how it happened or why it happened. It’s about what happened after it took place. It’s about what the men drew on-their family, their faith-in order to survive,” Strauss said.

And although he lives with 9/11 everyday, Scott remains positive in the message that he wishes Villanova faculty and students to take away from this story. “I want the readers to know that there is nothing stronger than a family bond,” Scott said. “Remain closest with your friends and your family, you need to. And thank the police officers and the firefighters. This afternoon, tomorrow, five years from now, the cop that everyone makes fun of for eating a donut is going to step in between you and a bullet. He doesn’t have to know you. Just give them thanks for wearing that uniform.”