From The Vault: 9/11 WTC Survivor John McLoughlin

As a Port Authority Police Officer, John McLoughlin led a rescue team to find survivors of the WTC attacks on 9/11. He and team-mate William Jimeno became trapped and looked doomed to die. Their story became the subject of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Here McLoughlin recounts what happened.

What was your reaction the first time you watched World Trade Center?

"My general reaction was that it was very well done and it was very emotional. Because it was so well done, it was difficult to see."

What were your initial thoughts when the idea was proposed to you about this film being made?

"Well, it was a process that came up before they actually said they were going to be doing a movie. During that process, Will [Jimeno] and I weren't looking to have our story told. It was important for us to tell the story of the men from our team we lost that day - we were the last ones to see them alive - and the heroics of the rescue workers. That was the important part and what we wanted to let the world know happened. So with that in mind we were very much in support of it to get their stories out."

Some people have said that it is too soon for films like this and United 93. It never struck you as being too early?

"No, my observation since it's come out in the United States is that those who maybe said it was too early and have changed their minds about it. We read a lot about that in the press and once they saw it they realised it's not a 9/11 terrorist story; this is a 9/11 story about humanity. Part of what is important to us is that everybody has their own level in dealing with tragedy. Some people will never be able to watch movies about 9/11. I mean I personally witnessed some of that trauma of people that I know. But some people a year later would have been okay to see it. The important thing is that this is part of us not forgetting, that we have to remember the tragedy of that day.

"It is also a historical event and if you want to get the information on a historical event, you'd better get it while the people are still alive and the memories are fresh and the details are still there. It's a shame we had all these soldiers from World War 2 that now are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and all of a sudden somebody said, ‘Maybe we should find out what they went through.' We should have found out what they went through when they were in their 20s, because suddenly these walking pieces of history are disappearing, and people are realising that. I think that's part of it too. It was an historical event, we were all part of it, and while the story is still fresh in our minds, tell it."

The film is also a love story, between you and your wife, Donna, and between WIll Jimeno and his wife, Allison. How did you react when they said they wanted to do something so personal? What was your reaction when you saw your relationship on screen?

"I think the emotion of the trauma of 9/11 is more difficult to deal with than telling the story of my family and my wife. The story about my family, my wife, is a happy story. It's a good story to tell. So the more difficult part was telling the details of what happened to us and our friends on 9/11. It was nice that people understand how families come together. I hope people get out of the movie how important it is to appreciate your kids, appreciate your loved ones. Life gets too involved and you start taking too many things for granted that maybe we shouldn't in our normal everyday life. People take away from the movie that they should be thankful for what they've got and hang onto it. So that's very good."

What did you draw on to survive?

"It was thinking about my family. I had to get out for my family. I had to try and survive for them."

What was your first thought when you realised what was going on?

"When the planes had hit the towers? At first I thought this was just a very tragic accident. Until I got down on the scene and realised how significant it was. Then I realised this was much more serious. But I didn't think we were facing the end of the world or anything. I thought we were facing a serious condition and a lot of people were in need up in those towers."

Was it a tough moment when you asked for volunteers to go into the towers with you, or was it just part of the job?

"I took it as part of the job. I knew what we had to do. I worked Emergency Services, which is a specialised unit within a police department to deal with these kinds of events, and I worked at the World Trade Centre for 12 years setting up equipment and training and preparing for a major event. Nothing to that significance, though. So as a supervisor it basically was my job. I had to get people in. I didn't order people in because I knew the significance of it. I asked for people that were comfortable with the equipment we were going to need to get up into those towers, and those men stepped forward that were comfortable with it. Then there was no hesitation. I didn't feel bad or I was doing something unusual asking people to come with me up into the tower."

When you were trapped, did you experience any kind of guilt with regards to the people you had led into the building?

"At that time, that day, no, I had no guilt feelings. I knew these officers, I worked with them, I was comfortable and confident that these were the type of men that with direction were going to do the job right. So I was comfortable with the men I was going in with and that we would be able to handle whatever we came across. It was just circumstances turned out beyond any of our control and tragic things ended up happening."

You helped put emergency plans in place after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993. Could any preparations for something like this have been put in place, because we have heard subsequently that the government was being warned by the CIA security services that terrorists were planning to hijack planes, and there have been suggestions that they may have had concerns that thy might be used as weapons?

"It wasn't handed down to my level, to street level, that that was a possibility. We had trained and set up contingencies, different types of training scenarios for problems, and that wasn't one of our training scenarios. Let's put it this way: we could have dealt with an accidental accident in a better manner than in the manner it was done, which was a terrorist event with such a large airliner. That was beyond our training and there was nothing in our training scenarios that we had set up."

Were you being kept in the dark to some extent and are you angry?

"[Sighs] Can you be angry over it? No. Sometimes people think this is such a simple process that they assimilate this information, it's black and white, cut and dried, this was going to happen, let's put everybody in fear of going into high-rises and tell them planes may crash into your buildings any day now. I've been in a position on a lower level, I would never want to be second guessed - you know, what we call Monday morning quarterback - on what happened the day before, the day after. I am comfortable that people did what they felt . . . Could I live with people actually knowing what was going to happen and consciously made the decision not to supply it? I don't think that occurred. You'd have to be some kind of horrific human being to consciously allow something like that to happen. I don't think that happened."

How did you feel about being played by Nicolas Cage?

"I was honoured that Nicolas wanted to take this role on. He truly went into it with a very dedicated attitude to get this as close as he could."

Can you tell us about how you worked together with the actors, Nicolas and Maria Bello, who plays your wife, Donna?

 "Well they both came to our home and we sat and talked. Nicolas came to the house, we went out, we had hours of discussions. We went to lunch together, just a couple of guys going out talking. We went out to a couple of places, we were on the set, and I think he understood. He went on patrol with one of our sergeants; all the main characters that play police officers went to the bus terminal [in midtown Manhattan], went on patrols, were assigned to a police officer and went out on patrol with them. Nicolas went out on patrol with one of our sergeants so they could see what it's like to be a street police officer in New York City as opposed to a Hollywood police officer. One of the aspects of the movie that I liked was you saw real cops. You didn't see the Hollywood cop. You saw fear. You saw how they handle themselves in public. They got the feel of the mannerisms of police officers because they went out with them, and they portrayed how a normal police officer goes out in a day in New York City with the Port Authority Police."

How involved were you? Were you on set during the shoot?

"No. We went into the details extensively prior to even the first piece of film being shot. All the details were already down and discussed over and over and over again. Then as they progressed with the film, we were on the set. I was only on the set once in New York. I was out there 10 days in California when they were doing the rescue scenes, and in between that if they had any questions they would call me up at home and asked me what was I wearing, what was I doing, how did I feel, and I'd fill them in. But I wasn't on the set extensively."

How much did you help them with the physical details of the locations?

"The debris-field set, I couldn't even help them with. I never saw the debris field. I was in the inside. There were two separate sets. The one where you see Nicolas and Michael [Pena, playing Will Jimeno] where they were buried, that was inside and they had this set inside for the hole. Then there was an outside set where there was a debris field. So the only thing I could help them with was the hole. They had to talk to all the Port Authority Police officers, New York City Police officers, and New York firemen to help them on the set with what they saw. Mainly the rescue workers on the set came out with us so they helped them out with what they saw and what they did on the debris field. And all those officers and firemen, it was very emotional for them. That's how realistic the set was when they saw that debris field."

Do you and your family talk about 9/11 much today?

"At this point we don't have a lot of discussions about 9/11, especially with family. We've talked about it. Everybody knows and everybody in the family knows what's going on. We don't want that to be a constant part of our life so we go on with life. Sometimes strangers are curious and ask questions. Our friends know most of the details and they don't bring it up."

Often people who have suffered a trauma cannot speak about it for some time. Did you go through a period like that?

"No, I don't think there was any period of time I couldn't talk about it. But there was definitely a period of when I couldn't deal with you as calmly as now. It was extremely emotional to deal with, whereas certain aspects of it now it's a lot easier for me to deal with than years ago. But aspects of it are still very emotional and raw and probably always will be."

Tell me about the moment you were pulled out.

"When I came out on the stretcher I didn't know the towers were down. I thought it was car bombs that went off. When I got trapped I was in my own little world. So not only didn't I know the towers had come down, I had no idea of the magnitude of the event at that time. I only found that out months later. It obviously upset me because it was very personal to me. This wasn't an event where nearly 3000 people died but it had over 30 of my personal friends die. So this wasn't an event or tragedy that I was separated from, plus I lost three men that I had personally brought into that building, so it was very personal."

Copyright Stephen Applebaum, 2014

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