Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Officer Recalls 9/11 Rescue on 20th Anniversary

September 11, 2001, is a day that forever changed the world, especially for first responders at Ground Zero. Among them was a Marine sergeant who now serves the Ohio Supreme Court.

Court security officer Jason Thomas was one of the thousands of men and women who rushed to the World Trade Center in New York City to help after hearing about the terrorist attack that targeted its iconic Twin Towers.

“The fact that I came out unscathed is a testament to God,” said Thomas, with the Supreme Court since 2004.

Thomas, a native New Yorker who at the time had recently finished a tour of duty, was juggling his normal weekday routine of work, college, and family as he was dropping off his infant daughter at his mother’s house on Long Island.

“She never met me on the front porch, so when she did, it just seemed to me that there was a problem,” Thomas said.

After his mother told him what happened, he looked over her shoulder and saw the television news coverage, including horrifying replays of the two planes crashing into the towers.

Thomas was in the process of moving to another home in the city, and amid the hassles of packing and unpacking, had left his military uniform and equipment in the trunk of his car.

Without hesitation, he hopped into his vehicle and went to the crash site, compelled by an expression his mother engrained into him and his 15 siblings – “You are your brother’s keeper.”

“As I was leaving, my mother told me to, ‘Be careful, and don’t drive too fast,’” Thomas said. “I knew I couldn’t promise either.”

Rushing to the Scene
Making the 45-minute drive hundreds of times throughout his life, he knew several ways to reach his destination. However, the fog of the surreal circumstances clouded his clarity, and he got lost in Queens.

After a 10-minute detour, a fellow New Yorker directed him toward lower Manhattan.

En route again, he noticed a convoy of black sedans with tinted windows and flashing lights behind him. Since his car closely resembled the others in the caravan, he tagged along behind them. 

With the World Trade Center in sight, the group sped toward the scene until a traffic jam caused them to stop shy of Ground Zero.

“As I pulled over to the side of the road, I look up and see one tower collapsing in front of me,” Thomas said. “It was devastating.”

While the reality of the tragedy was apparent, so was his timely fortune to lose his sense of direction on the way.

“Had I not gotten lost, I would’ve been one of those brave men and women who went into the buildings, to help rescue those in need, only for the towers to have collapsed on top of me,” he said.

Jumping into Action
Forced to continue by foot, Thomas hopped out of his car and braced for the “roaring” ash and debris. What hit him was the “most violating feeling” as waves of fine particles rushed all over his body with such heat and force that it felt like he was on fire.

With everything shrouded in grey, he worked his way through the murkiness, hearing sounds of crying and yelling in all directions.

“I didn’t have a plan. I was just winging it, and wherever I felt I was needed, that’s where I would go,” Thomas said.

First, he saw some firefighters battling one of the many blazes and helped them assemble their firehoses.

He then began entering neighboring buildings and helping those injured – and in shock – to safety. On top of fears of another structural collapse, he would hear explosions and see glass from windows falling from several stories.

He also set up a mobile triage unit to treat the wounded.

“It felt like I was in a movie, but it was all real,” Thomas said.

Hours later, his path crossed with another Marine, Staff Sgt. David Karnes. After discussing their backgrounds, they separated to gather as many people as they could to locate survivors in the rubble.

They recruited approximately 10 other men to help with their mission. Bogged down by conflicting suggestions on how to execute the operation, Thomas sensed it was time to act, feeling precious minutes were being wasted.

“I remember telling the others, ‘If you are going to conduct a search and rescue, meet me on the other side of the street,’” he said.

“When I got across the street and turned around, the only person that was standing there was this other Marine.”

Crawling Atop the Rubble
Awaiting both men was a mangled mess of deconstruction.

Remnants from the buildings were still settling, with the constant sounds and screeches of concrete and metal shifting. Close to 12 hours after the first attack, fires still burned in many of the cavernous crevices beneath the surface. Some of those voids were more than 50 feet deep.

The metal remained so hot that Thomas’ boots would start to melt if he stood on the rebar too long. 

“It wasn’t the smartest thing to do. However, it was the necessary thing to do,” Thomas said.

Every few feet, Thomas and Karnes would yell into the vacant holes, “This is the United States Marines, is there anyone down there?” in hopes of a response.

After hours of silence, they heard a voice.

Signs of Life
As smoke and fire poured through the hole, Thomas eased himself down into the void, only to lose his footing, fall, and land on his back about 12 feet down, knocking the wind out of him.

Stunned, but uninjured, he gathered himself, rolled over, and crawled his way across the hole where he and Karnes began digging, removing boulders and debris to reach the person stuck another 50 feet below.

“I remember talking to this officer, he sounded panicked, and I remember telling him, ‘Buddy, we’re not going to leave you,’” Thomas said.

“I found out later on that a person came to that same hole earlier that day and they said that they would come back to help rescue him, but they never did.”

The trapped person, Port Authority Police Officer Will Jimeno, was aiding in the rescue efforts when the South Tower crumbled. He was buried even further when the North Tower collapsed on top of that. He was stuck underneath the devastation, along with his partner, Sgt. John McLoughlin.

Jimeno was unable to move his leg because it was pinned by a caved-in wall. At one point, he asked Thomas to amputate it to increase the chances of survival for him and McLoughlin.

During that consideration, Karnes continued his attempts to reach someone by cell phone. Finally, he was able to connect to his sister, who called 911. Authorities triangulated the hole’s location and sent a rescue team.

Approximately 50 people responded, and after another two hours of digging, Jimeno was free.

“It was the greatest feeling,” Thomas said.

That relief was short-lived because, with McLoughlin still trapped, the “mission wasn’t over.”  Thomas went back into the rotations of digging for the next two hours until his body began to shut down, showing signs of exhaustion and hypothermia.

“I thought to myself, ‘You have to pull yourself out of this. You can’t become a liability,’” he said.

“And there I went, crawling off the pile of rubble.”

Compelled to Go Back
After being treated at the scene, Thomas made his way back to his car, which was covered in six inches of ash. It resembled black snow, but was too hot to touch.

He went home, cleaned up, and went to bed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a nightmare up until that point, but I could hear voices crying out, and it felt so real,” he said.

“I remember getting up and saying, ‘I have to go back to Ground Zero.’”

He returned the following morning to find out the hole he was in had collapsed, but not before McLoughlin was pulled to safety.

Thomas reappeared at the site every day for three weeks to help with the rescue and recovery efforts.

“I did it until I just couldn’t go any further,” he said.

Dealing with the Aftermath
Given his focus, military training, and family life, Thomas has mastered being in the moment. The mindfulness of handling the present helped him transition his life away from Ground Zero. However, there have been issues he’s endured throughout the years.

The military mantra to “never leave a person behind” plagued him regarding McLoughlin. Even though he had reached his physical limit, he carried guilt that he didn’t see the rescue mission to its end. 

It was a burden that stuck with him for five years – and dozens of surgeries for the officers – until Thomas and the officers reunited for the first time after that fateful day.

“It was this massive rush of emotions, because I needed to visually see that they were not broken and battered and that they were okay,” Thomas said.

The reunion occurred around the same time he learned a major motion picture, titled “World Trade Center,” would depict that day, and in particular, his story.

Thomas, a stoic figure by nature, trembled as he saw the images from the trailer reenacting what he experienced.

“For that to occur, I knew that I had not dealt with 9/11 as well as I thought I did,” he said.

Healing through Speaking
Since then, Thomas has become more open about what happened, appearing in numerous documentaries, being featured in articles, and participating in speaking engagements. Having never sat down with a counselor to process the trauma, he uses interview requests and panel discussions as a way for him to help heal some of the scars.

“The more that I talk about 9/11 and my experience, the more therapeutic it is for me,” he said

More importantly, his position and platform give him the opportunity to hear the inspiring stories of others, as well as shining a light on the thousands of unrecognized people who risked their lives that day the way he did.

“People need to know and be reminded of the many men and women who acted out of character and went to help others,” Thomas said.