Last Man Out

Sgt. John McLoughlin Describes His Rescue From Ground Zero After 9/11

Most of us will be giving thanks Thursday for the things we have.

But Sgt. John McLoughlin will be grateful for something truly priceless. Three years ago, McLoughlin, a sergeant with the Port Authority police, was the last man pulled alive from the World Trade Center after the attacks of 9/11.

He survived being buried underground for 22 hours, then endured dozens of painful operations, and years of physical therapy. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey revisits that day with McLoughlin at the place where it all nearly ended – Ground Zero.

How often does McLoughlin visit Ground Zero?

"Not very often. Usually, I'm kinda just passing through. This is the first time I actually came down here, and kinda stopped and looked around," says McLoughlin.

"It's strange, because it doesn't seem like I'm in the same place. You just recognize some of the surrounding buildings, but you still don't feel like you're back at the World Trade Center."

It was the longest day in American history. But for McLoughlin and countless others, it still hasn't ended.

"Nobody will ever fully recover from what happened that day," says McLoughlin.

When Tower One was first hit that morning, McLoughlin was actually nowhere near the World Trade Center. He was a few miles north, on duty at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. But like so many others, he headed downtown to try to save lives.

"Nobody trained for this," says McLoughlin, who was as close to an expert as they come. He'd spent 24 years with the Port Authority -- 12 of them at the World Trade Center.

"He loved the Trade Center," says his wife, Donna. "The Trade Center was where he worked more of his years, and he knew it like the back of his hand. And he needed to be there."

Arriving at the scene, and unaware that both towers had now been hit, McLoughlin assembled a team of Port Authority officers: Antonio Rodrigues, Chris Amoroso, Dominick Pezullo, and a rookie named Will Jimeno.

After changing into fire gear, the four officers followed McLoughlin through the underground concourse level. They got about halfway between the towers when they heard an explosion. Tower Two was coming down on top of them.

"Initially, I thought I had died," says McLoughlin. "I lost all sense. I had no sight. I had no smell. I had no hearing. Everything was just silent."

Officers Amoroso and Rodrigues were killed immediately. McLoughlin and the other two men were trapped. But remarkably, one of them, Pezullo, managed to dig himself out. He was trying to rescue his colleagues when there was another explosion.

It was Tower One coming down. And Pezullo, who'd gotten free, was struck by a piece of concrete and killed. He fell near McLoughlin, who talked to him before he died.

"He had just said that, 'Remember, I tried to get you guys out,'" recalls Pezullo. "At the time, we had to make a decision -- either climb out and get help, or stay there and try to get us out. And he chose to stay there and try to get us out."

Now, buried 30 feet beneath the rubble, there were two men left from the team: McLoughlin and Jimeno, two men who barely knew each other.

"I had to ask Will his first name. He was a rookie officer that I just supervised occasionally," says McLoughlin.

"It was just me and the sarge," adds Jimeno, who remembers their determination to survive, and the pain of their lower bodies being crushed by enormous weight.

"I could just hear the screams. I was yelling, also, but his screams were just really going through me, and I thought, 'Well, being younger, maybe, I can hold on a little bit longer.'"

"I said 'Will, I don't think anybody's coming looking for us. There's too much going on. They've got their hands full," recalls McLoughlin.

Was that the darkest moment? "No. It got darker. I think, what we went through, fire coming through the hole," says McLoughlin. "Will could see it. It was coming in. It was burning his arm. And I think we both thought we're going to burn to death where we laid."

McLoughlin reached for his radio. Although communications were down, he tried to send a final message for his family, and one for Will's wife, who was seven months pregnant.

"I think when Will asked me to say he wanted his unborn daughter to named Olivia, I think that was the worst point," says McLoughlin. "Because I think we kind of both accepted our death."

Night fell, and by 8 o'clock, they had been buried more than 10 hours. That was when Jimeno heard voices. "It was two Marine reservists and a civilian, and I begged them not to leave us," says Jimeno. "And they said, 'No, we're not going to leave.' And soon after that, you know, the cavalry came."

Mabrey talked to the cavalry, some of the men who came to the rescue that night. They are New York City police officers Scott Strauss and Paddy McGee, both now retired, and Det. John Busching, active duty. This September, 60 Minutes invited them to meet at a restaurant near Ground Zero to share memories of that long night.

"The race was on," says McGee. "And about 20 cops just started going up the wreckage of what was left of the towers."

"I don't think I've ever been more scared in my life than I was that night," says Busching.

And he was scared for good reason. The fiery pile they tunneled into was unstable and at risk of further collapse. At times, they were digging with their bare hands, into some very tight quarters. They reached Jimeno first, and by 11 p.m., they were able to set him free. He was taken to the hospital where doctors later operated to save his legs.

"I was glad to hear that they got him out," says McLoughlin. "I figured it wasn't going to take them too long to get me out."

But he was buried deeper and had to wait another eight hours.

"It's incredible the amount of pain you were in, and you didn't complain," Strauss says to McLoughlin. "You know, you didn't say, 'Oh, hurry up and get me out.' You were real calm, cool, collected. You know, it was incredible, absolutely incredible."

Finally, just after 7 a.m., on Sept. 12, almost a full day after being buried, McLoughlin was pulled to safety. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where doctors first believed he wouldn't make it.

"They thought it was so severe they wanted to bring my kids down to see me for the last time,' says McLoughlin.

Doctors kept him in a medically induced coma for six weeks. He underwent 30 surgeries, including skin grafts on his legs. Recovery took months, but the man who was once counted out, had come back.

"I had determined I'm going to get better and I'm going to walk," says McLoughlin. "And even though they didn't think I would ever walk again, I didn't have that in my mindset. I was going to walk."

Just four months out of the hospital, back at Ground Zero to witness the removal of "the final column," McLoughlin was there, walking with Jimeno.

"It was a symbolic move that after all the uniforms had left Ground Zero, Will and I were the last two uniforms to walk out behind everybody," says McLoughlin.

That final column now rests in a room of its own, in a huge hangar at Kennedy Airport, alongside other remnants of the tragedy. There's also a tentful of crushed cars and trucks, including the one McLoughlin drove downtown that day.

"It's kinda strange seeing all of them. It's not just this vehicle, it's all of them," says McLoughlin.

And there were support beams, from which workers cut Stars of David and crosses. One of the officers gave McLoughlin a piece from one of the beams.

He's kept the boots he was wearing, and his shield. "I wore this that day, and I wore it the whole time I was buried," says McLoughlin. "This has the greatest significance to me, being able to keep my sergeant shield."

McLoughlin is no longer a sergeant. Before retiring from the force earlier this year, he was promoted to lieutenant. Today, at 51, he continues to gain strength in his legs through strenuous physical therapy three days a week at Helen Hayes Hospital in upstate New York.

"I have what I call the weeble-wobble [walk]," says McLoughlin. "I'm trying to straighten that out so I have more of a normal gait to my step."

He also gets around pretty well by himself using a hand-control device in his car. He's now a full-time husband and father to four children. And he hardly misses his son's soccer games.

"He's pretty much back to his normal self, like nothing ever happened to him," says McLoughlin's son, J.J. "I try not to think about it too much cause it makes me sad. You gotta think about the positives."

"It's very hard. People don't realize how hard it is," adds McLoughlin's wife, Donna. "But you don't look back and you don't … you're just thankful for what we do have."

McLoughlin, too, gives thanks, to his family and to his rescue team. But he still struggles, with thoughts of what he wishes could have gone differently that day.

"The people I brought in there, I should have been able to bring back out again," says McLoughlin.

"You did the right thing that day," says Jimeno. "Dominick, Antonio, Chris, me, we went in because we were doing our jobs. So don't you ever feel any different, you hear me, boss? I love you."