A special connection to 9/11 survivors, veterans and the Auburn Family

Published: September 07, 2021
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As Olivia Jimeno walks to her student job in Auburn’s Veterans Resource Center, she often finds herself encountering the center’s display featuring a piece of steel retrieved after the World Trade Center towers’ collapse on Sept. 11, 2001.

It is a powerful reminder her father made it out alive after the terrorist attacks 20 years ago.

Will Jimeno, then an officer with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, survived that terrible day, and his story inspired the 2006 movie, “World Trade Center.”

Will rode to the World Trade Center site with 20 other Port Authority police officers in a commandeered bus after he saw the airplane that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The collapse of the South Tower trapped him under the concourse between the twin towers. Several hours passed before a rescue team was able to find him and pull him from the wreckage.

In 2015, he presented the Veterans Resource Center, or VRC, with the steel memorial from ground zero.

“I wanted our student veterans to know that someone who responded, was injured and survived appreciates each and every one of them for their service,” said Will, a U.S. Navy veteran. “This display also allows all students to stop by and see, feel and learn about their American history.”

Before Olivia enrolled at Auburn, her sister Bianca was a student and enjoyed having the Jimeno family visit campus, especially for sporting events.

“I came to Auburn many times to visit Bianca and attend football games,” said Olivia. “It was during these trips that I became aware of the welcoming and homey atmosphere of campus. The benevolence of the faculty and students convinced me to apply.”

After Bianca graduated in 2019, the Jimeno family maintained a strong bond with the university, especially with the VRC. Paul “Puck“ Esposito, center director and a Navy veteran, had a close connection with Will and quickly became a familiar face to Olivia.

“I would come into the VRC often to visit Puck,” said Olivia. “He became a strong role model in my life and, eventually, my boss.”

As an employee of the center in 217 Foy Hall, Olivia works to support Auburn’s student veterans and understands the impact the ground zero display can have for service members.

“Having a piece of the World Trade Center in the VRC serves as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made by those who serve and have served our country,” said Olivia. “It is a symbol of the American spirit and represents that no matter what has happened in the past, when we come together, we always build back stronger.”

Not only does the display allow her to connect with student veterans, it also allows her to reflect with pride and appreciation for her father.

“Watching my father overcome the challenge of adapting to life after his service in the military and police force makes me proud of my dad,” said Olivia. “He has been able to take these events and help others through shared experiences.”

Today, Will travels the country telling his story of surviving the deadliest attack on American soil. He didn’t always intend to publicly share his story, but when he was approached to help children conquer their fear of flying, it motivated him to share his powerful experience.

“It was something I never thought of doing,” said Will. “I began by encouraging students to live and never fall to fear. Soon, schools requested me to come and speak; then it blossomed into universities, police and fire academies, churches, private entities and professional football teams.”

He is now the author of two books: a biography, “Sunrise Through the Darkness,” and a children’s book, “Immigrant, American, Survivor.” Both books emphasize the importance of learning how to overcome life’s challenges.

He enjoys traveling to events around the country to speak, but visiting his daughter in Auburn at the Veterans Resource Center is always a special trip.

“It is truly a blessing to have Olivia at Auburn on the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, as it shows that the Jimeno commitment to service lives on, beyond my service as a police officer and Navy veteran,” said Will.

“The Veterans Resource Center has some of the best Americans I have had the pleasure of calling friends, but more importantly, family. Auburn to the Jimeno family embodies what we want to see in our nation, which is a place of unity, pride and a promise of a great future for our nation.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.