Levels of hell: Chuck Sereika and 9/11

@2006 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

VERO BEACH, Fla. — It wasn’t bravery that compelled Chuck Sereika to walk into the smoldering ruin of the World Trade Center the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

It was fear.

His sister Joy had a left a message on his answering machine. Just checking on you, she’d said. I guess you’re down there helping out.

Sereika had already heard the commotion in the street, seen the disaster unfolding in downtown New York City – about 60 blocks from his midtown apartment – on TV.

“And I still had no intention of going down there,” he remembered. “I don’t think like that. I hadn’t worked as a paramedic in a few years.”

In fact, he’d let his license expire months before, while he’d been at a treatment facility out west. Drinking, drugs and depression had become Sereika’s support system; the black sheep of an already dysfunctional family, he was used to disappointing Joy. Lately, however, their relationship had been improving.

So her call that morning stirred him to action.

“Maybe it’s in my character to help people, because I’ve done it for so long,” Sereika said. “But it wasn’t even a thought. The only reason I ended up there was because I didn’t want to let my sister down. The rest was just God.”

Sereika, 37, moved to Vero two years ago, after discovering the Treasure Coast during a stint at a Delray Beach rehab center. With his new bride Tracy, he runs Clean As a Whistle, a house–cleaning service.

Like many of those who braved the hell of Ground Zero to rescue others, Sereika’s story is told in Oliver Stone’s movie World Trade Center.

Or at least one version of his story.

“It was a very long, very tiring rescue, and nothing like you see in the film,” said Sereika, who sat uneasily through a recent advance screening of the movie. “Paramount Pictures can make any kind of movie they want, but certain people know the truth. And the truth stands by itself.”

He thought the script, and actor Frank Whaley, made him look like an unprofessional “geek” who had a very small role in the rescue. They bungled many facts, he felt, and he’s considering a defamation of character lawsuit.

In the real world, meanwhile, the nightmares have finally ended. For years, Sereika jumped at loud sounds, at violence on television, at low-flying airplanes. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – like a soldier who’s come out of particularly violent combat – but it seems to have “worked itself out,” he said, through therapy.

But when he wants to, he can still close his eyes and go back to The Hole.

He’d thrown on one of his blue paramedic sweatshirts, walked to a nearby hospital and talked his way onto an emergency vehicle going to the site.

He arrived at 11 a.m., not long after the twin towers had collapsed like stacks of kindling. He figured he’d splint a few legs, apply an oxygen mask or two, feel good about himself and head back home to call Joy.

“It looked like a huge snowstorm in September,” he recalled. “Everything was just covered in this white ash. Everybody was standing around. I saw no civilians at all; it was a sea of uniforms. There was nobody to treat. There was nothing there.”

Sereika spent several hours carefully stepping through rubble with members of the New York police and fire departments.

At dusk, the site – pockmarked with fires and the jagged architecture of disaster – was deemed too dangerous, and rescuers were called back.

On his own, he began to climb the smoking rubble heap. “It’s just out of my character to have done what I did,” Sereika said. “I felt like we were on hallowed ground. I put it into my head that it was a woman and a child that were trapped.”

It was God, he believed, that put the trapped mother-and-child image in his mind.

“I actually figured that their lives were probably worth more than mine. I also figured that I wasn’t going to live through this. I thought ‘There’s no way I’m coming back.’

“Because I had to crawl, from the outside, on my hands and knees. There was big spaces in the rubble, and some went down what looked like 90 feet.”

He came upon Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes, a retired Marine who’d driven in from Connecticut to volunteer.

“So I see one marine in a uniform, standing there by this opening, all by himself. And I thought ‘I’m really going to die now.’

“He’s looking at me for help, going ‘Thank God! The rescue team is here!'”

But Sereika, balancing on a broken slab of what once been Building 7, was all alone.

Karnes pointed his flashlight down into what remained of an elevator shaft, where officer Will Jimeno lay, almost completely covered by chunks of concrete and splintered rebar. At first, all Sereika could see was Jimeno’s frantically waving hand.

Karnes helped Sereika shimmy himself into the crawlspace that would lead to the trapped officer. “I reached for my cell phone – at least, I thought, I can call my sister before I die,” Sereika said. “It fell out of my hand, down one of the holes. It was gone – and that was it.”

Karnes radioed for assistance.

In The Hole, the smoke choked Sereiko, and the heat was nearly unbearable. Still, he clawed his way down, until he found the body of Dominick Pezzulo, a cop who’d been crushed by falling debris. And then he saw Jimeno.

“I was right next to him,” Sereika said. “He was pinned from the neck down. I started digging him out on my own, because I didn’t think any help was coming. I wasn’t going to leave him. He was scared.”

The frantic young officer, who’d been buried for 10 hours, talked about his daughter, and his pregnant wife. He cried. “He was begging me to cut his legs off,” Sereiko said. “Like I could cut his legs off! He was trapped pretty good.”

Sereika pulled debris away for about 30 minutes, and once others arrived, he gave Jimeno oxygen and an intravenous drip. A pair of emergency medical technicians backed into the tight space to assist.

“I had to reach for every rock I took off Jimeno,” Sereiko said. “The smallest rock, I would hand to Scott Strauss, he would hand it to Paddy McGee. And he threw it in the elevator shaft. That went on for three hours.”

Once Jimeno was freed, loaded into a stretcher and ferried out by a bucket brigade of responders, Sereika – bruised, exhausted, his lungs scorched by the burning subterranean air – was helped out of the hole. He could barely stand.

“When I came out, there was a chief by the entrance. He goes ‘Good job, son,’ and he patted me on the back.

“And he gets on his radio and says ‘We need another paramedic.’ Which made me feel pretty good.”

He was, despite his screwups, self–doubts and family recriminations, a paramedic after all.

Jimeno – and Sgt. John McLoughlin, who was freed around dawn – were the last people pulled from Ground Zero alive.

Around 11 that night, Chuck Sereika walked the 20 blocks to his cousin Jennifer’s apartment in Greenwich Village. He was dazed and shivering, and had the cold sweats.

Eventually, he told his family about his part in Jimeno’s rescue. “And my sister said ‘Well, the TV said it was the fire department that rescued him.’ They didn’t believe me.

“So I let it go, because it’s pretty typical for my family not to believe a word I say.”

It was only after the New York Times wrote about his act of heroism that Sereika’s family understood, and praised him.

Days after 9/11, Sereika read about United 93, the hijacked plane that had crashed in a field on Sept. 11. A lightbulb went on in his mind – God had told him about the woman and child, and both Jimeno and Karnes had spoken of “seeing Jesus” amidst the chaos.

“The last thing heard on the cockpit recorder was ‘Allah is Great,'” he said. “So why would it be so strange that, whether it’s the same god or not, that He sent us to try to make right something that was wrong?

“The only thing left was two officers. Everything else was done. I don’t have any big questions about it; I believe it was divine intervention.”

– Bill DeYoung