Editor’s Note: Of all the stories I’ve been fortunate enough to pen in my time at (614), two of them stand out among hundreds – not just for the candor contained within, but by virtue of them completely falling into my lap. Thomas and a fellow Marine saved two Port Authority cops from the rubble of the World Trade Center on 9/11, but no one knew of his actions that day other than a select few; his identity was only revealed five years later when Oliver Stone mistakenly cast white actor William Mapother as “Marine Sergeant Thomas” in his 2005 film World Trade Center. What started as an interview about his Heroes Helping Humanity Foundation quickly became his recounting of a tale so visceral that I only needed to turn the recorder on and get the hell out of the way. Since we printed “The Unknown Soldier” in September 2010, Thomas has become a motivational speaker, and Channel 4 in the UK produced a documentary about him last fall, which is in talks for release here at home this year. On top of that, Thomas, who works as a security officer at the Ohio Supreme Court, joined the Air Force last year as an EMT Specialist, determined to better his ability to help people after his experience at Ground Zero.
On keeping his identity hidden…
• I must say, initially, I tried to escape. You don’t know how much it will consume you, so I think that was the unknown. So I wanted to control it. I started to feel vulnerable, and I don’t like to feel vulnerable…
• You want to be in control of every situation, make sure you’ve got a plan, make sure you execute the plan correctly. Now…I embrace it. It’s been a healing process for me. It’s been somewhat like therapy, getting over the demons of what I experienced.
• It’s given me an opportunity to get the awareness out, getting people to understand how we should not as a country fall back to sleep. So many men and women lost their life on September 11, and you want to keep them alive… it’s more of I need to get this out. I need to share a story that is very interesting, empowering, and may change people’s way of thinking.
On first response as “second nature”
• I come from hardworking parents; my mother was a stay-at-home mom, my dad worked 16-hour shifts, overtime and that sort of thing. She instilled a lot of morals and character. She would always tell me, ‘You are your brother’s keeper,’ and you never leave your brother behind. It was more of, if you see anyone in need, you better do something about it. Without thinking. So when 9/11 occurred, it was more second nature.
• I felt vulnerable moreso when it came to providing a higher level of care for people that were injured, or people that eventually passed away. I never had that true training. That has haunted me over the years. Had I had somewhat of a more specific skill set in the medical field, I may have been that much more effective. The amount of life that was lost, it haunts me to this day. So as of the last two years, I decided that I was going to join the Air Force. I wanted to get into the medical field, because I could never see myself being put into that situation, or responding to a situation like that [without] having medical training.
On a new path…
• My job as a Marine had nothing to do with wanting to heal anyone. ALL my training was close, hand-to-hand combat, as well as being certified as a trainer. [Medical care] was someone else’s job. [I would] do the damage. My job was to incapacitate, kill a person within five seconds. That was the job, as quickly as possible, and move on to the next threat. Or utilize your weapon to be able to efficiently kill a person. 9/11 had everything to do with that shift.
• I’ve embraced what I’m doing now, I have that much more of a passion now for medicine. I never thought that it would be that way. I’ve found the human body to be that much more interesting than I ever…you could not have got me to do it 20 years ago, when I was rambunctious and wanted to shoot everything that moved and blow up everything that I could get my hands on. But now I’m a little bit more mature and it’s easier to settle into something like this.
• I live with 9/11 every day, you know? I wake up thinking about 9/11…I’ve met so many people that were affected by 9/11, that were involved in the rescue efforts, so many men and women who lost their loved ones, how do you not?
• Whenever I think back, and or whenever I read, like a Wikipedia piece on myself, I don’t even feel as if that was me. I would have to give a lot of the credit to my parents and of course the Marine Corps, but you know, God had a mission. I don’t want to take anything away, because without Him, I promise you I would not be here. I would not be here. What I experienced on September 11 and what He had me do…what I did on 9/11…I know for sure I shouldn’t be here.
• I got lost the morning of…you know, I’m a native New Yorker. And not, like, I got back on track three minutes later…I was like in fog. I could not understand. Knowing that had I got there 15 minutes earlier and running into a burning building, doing what a lot of our police officers and firefighters, our heroes truly did…I would not be here.