A few years ago, I swore off 9/11 television documentaries. When they're good—HBO's In Memoriam — New York City, 9/11/01, compiled mostly from amateur video and news outtakes, is a marvel of the documentary form—they're agonizingly painful, a relentless stream of plummeting bodies and human torment to which there are no happy endings. (Or endings, period; most of the disquieting headlines each morning, from ISIS to NSA spying to refugee corpses washing up on Turkish beaches, bear a September 11 time stamp.) And when they're bad, they're agonizing. Worst of all, they arrive in spurts around the time of the anniversary, making overdoses almost inevitable. Humanity's capacity to do evil well exceeds humanity's capacity to absorb the facts of that evil.
So it's with some surprise that I report the arrival of a British-made exception to the 9/11 rule. Desination America's 9/11: The Lost Hero illuminates a much-mythologized but little-understood sidebar story of the day, the rescue of two Port Authority cops buried in the rubble of the Twin Towers.
The tale of the policemen, the only survivors of the buildings' collapse to be found more than a few minutes after it ended, has been told many times, but always with one key component missing: The identity of a mysterious U.S. Marine sergeant who found them in an unauthorized search late the night of September 11 after police and firemen were ordered out of the unstable ruins.
Nobody knew who the Marine was, what he was doing there, or what happened to him. As one of the rescued cops, Will Jimeno, says in The Lost Hero: "He just went off into the woods afterwards and went about his business." Port Authority detectives searched for him for years without finding even a trace, and increasingly the sergeant was relegated to urban myth status, omitted from many accounts of the rescue. Reporters mostly made heroes out of the medics who treated the cops—who all could be identified and interviewed—and simply snipped out the troublesome dangling thread of who located them in the dark, smoldering wreckage.
In fact, Sgt. Jason Thomas was quite real, a 27-year-old former Marine who lived on Long Island and was dropping his daughter off at day care on his way to law school classes when he heard the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Putting on the uniform he carried in the trunk of his car, he raced to Manhattan, where TV news cameras captured his image, a lone figure in camouflage fatigues moving toward the mound of blasted concrete and shattered corpses as hordes of survivors flooded away. "It truly looked like a battlefield," Thomas recalls in The Lost Hero.
For several hours, he carried the injured away from the towers, helped set up medical triage stations and assisted firemen in putting out small blazes touched off by the flaming debris that continued to rain from the wreckage. As the afternoon dissolved into twilight, official rescue workers were ordered out of the increasingly dangerous site. And that's when Thomas, driven by an inexplicable certainty that more survivors were trapped inside, went in.
He linked up with David Karnes, another former Marine sergeant on a one-man rescue mission. Together they crept through flames, superheated rubble and oily black smoke laced with the dreadful smell of roasted flesh, pausing at holes in the rubble to shout: "This is the United States Marines! Is anyone down there?" Their hopes dimmed every time their cry echoed back without an answer.
Hope had long ago blinked out for Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, the Port Authority policemen interred in the trade center basement. With three other cops, they had been approaching an elevator, planning to help with the evacuation, when they were buried by the collapse of the first tower. Jimeno was so immersed in the rubble that a paramedic would later say he looked like he'd been poured out of a dump truck.
Two of the policemen died instantly; a third managed to free himself, but decided to stay with Jimeno and McLoughlin while calling for help because he was afraid he wouldn't be able to find his way back in the trackless rubble. He was killed in the collapse of the second tower. Then the advancing flames began cooking off the 15 cartridges from his pistol. Jimeno, clutching his hand to his face in the vane hope it would stop a stray bullet, gave up: "I closed my eyes and I wanted to die."
How the men finally linked up is best left to their own words. Thomas and Jimeno are both interviewed extensively in The Lost Hero, and their accounts are gripping. The rest of the documentary is not always up to their efforts; though The Lost Hero is far superior to most accounts of the rescue, it's still a little soft around the edges. Thomas' exact status with the Marines, for instance, and why he had a uniform in the trunk of his car, are never explained. (That doesn't necessarily mean the answer is suspicious—the other Marine, Karnes, was retired, but also had a uniform handy. Maybe it's just a Marine thing.) Neither is his subsequent decision to drop out of law school.
Part of the reason for the blurry areas in The Lost Hero may be that there's some friction among the principal characters. It appears that Jimeno, McLoughlin, Karnes and Thomas have never set together for an interview; every story on the rescue quotes one or two of them, but never all four.
Another, more fundamental, reason may be that even all these years later, Thomas has no real comprehension of what drew him to Manhattan that day when so many others were running away. After the rescue, he kept coming back every day for three weeks, continuing his search, though without any luck. Even his family had no idea what he had done. He didn't speak up until 2006, when investigative fantasist Oliver Stone's film about the rescue, World Trade Center, used a white actor to play the black Thomas.
What is certain is that, at a moment when mankind's darkest impulses were on full and horrifying display in the mass murder of 3,000 people, Thomas reminded us of the best ones. He didn't have to help; he did. He didn't have to enter the hellish remains of the trade center; he did. The Lost Hero is an affirmation of human decency on a day when there didn't seem to be any.
9/11: The Lost Hero. Destination America. Tuesday, September 8, 10 p.m. EDT.