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Thankful to the Corps: One Marine’s 9/11 call to action

On Sept. 11, 2001, David W. Karnes was working as an accountant at Deloitte’s national office in Connecticut. The prior service infantry staff sergeant’s location was a little more than an hour drive from New York City.

Karnes received a phone call from his sister early that fateful morning. She told him a small plane had accidently crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center and the tower was on fire. Karnes said he couldn’t understand how anyone could accidently fly into one of the largest structures in the city. He knew something else was going on.

“I knew right then that our country was under attack,” Karnes said.

Soon after hearing news of the tragedy, Karnes told his colleagues of his inclinations that the United States was at war and that he knew he had to help his fellow Americans in New York.

“At that point I went into my office and prayed for a few hours,” he said. “God put on my heart exactly what I was supposed to do and exactly what the situation was down there.”

Karnes told his boss he was going to the city to conduct search and rescue. It wasn’t until leaving his office that Karnes saw the footage of the towers on hallway monitors for the first time. He knew then that he needed to prepare for the challenges ahead.

Karnes’ first instinct was to gear up for action as a Marine. One of the first stops would be a local barbershop for a regulation haircut. Due to the events that had now been reported in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, Karnes feared all of the shops would be closed. However, the barbershop closest to his home was open. The barber told Karnes he felt there was a reason he needed to stay at work a little longer.

Karnes said he believes that reason was to cut his hair.

The haircut wasn’t the only Marine requirement Karnes thought he needed. For years, Karnes had been in the habit of keeping a starched set of his Marine Corps camouflaged utilities in the front closet of his house, “just in case our shores were attacked again, I wanted to be ready,” Karnes said. That day, he used this uniform for that very reason.

After changing into uniform, Karnes drove to his Long Island storage unit to get some rappelling gear, canteens of water and other equipment he might need. He left the storage unit and decided to make one more stop on his journey. He needed to talk with his pastor.

“Pastor Barker saw me and said ‘Brother Dave, you’re going down there, aren’t you? I knew you would’,” Karnes said. “We talked and prayed for God’s guidance and protection right there on the sidewalk.”

On his way to New York City, Karnes connected with his previous Marine Corps Reserve command and advised them of his intentions. They were on alert and awaiting orders. Karnes knew he could not wait.

The quickest way into the city would be the Belt Parkway. However, the highway patrol had shut down all roads into New York City. Karnes was determined to take the route anyway. A New York City police officer flagged Karnes through the barricade, acknowledging that Karnes was in uniform with gear, packed and ready, in the back seat.

Karnes continued to make haste to the scene. With only first responders on the parkway, there was little to slow him down.

“I did get stopped one time, at the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge,” Karnes said. I reached into my left breast pocket and pulled out my expired Marine Corps ID card. The NYPD officer simply said ‘give them hell, staff sergeant’.”

Karnes parked as close as he could to ground zero and rushed to the scene. Along the way, he saw a group of about five military men in various field uniforms- one of them was a fellow Marine.  Karnes asked that Marine, Sgt Jason Thomas, to take a walk with him. Together, they entered the debris from Church Street and searched the ruins for survivors.

As they patrolled through the rubble in search of survivors, Karnes and Thomas would continually call out at the top of their lungs “United States Marines,” listening for a response or a tap for help.

Karnes located two survivors, Port Authority Police Officers, who had been trapped for more than ten hours. The two were part of a five-man PAPD team that had commandeered a bus to get to the scene. When the first tower fell, they were standing beside its freight elevator in the underground concourse. The collapse killed two of them, Christopher Amoroso and Antonio Rodrigues.  When the second tower collapsed, a third officer, Dominick Pezzulo, was killed. The remaining two, rookie William Jimeno and Sgt John McLoughlin, were now trapped 20 feet below the rubble’s surface in dangerous debris.

Karnes used his cell phone to reach his wife and sister with instructions for contacting authorities.  He then instructed Thomas to guide responders to them from higher ground. After a short while, Chuck Sereika, having heard radio traffic from fire and police vehicles on the perimeter about possible survivors, arrived on the scene. Chuck had been a licensed Paramedic.  Together, he and Karnes climbed down into the rubble, working their way to the trapped police officers and began first aid on Jimeno.

Two NYPD officers showed up with radios and called for additional gear to aid the rescue.

Karnes noticed during the rescue effort that a fire was burning just beneath Jimeno. He realized that the fire, along with the risk of a further collapse, was putting all the men at greater risk.

“I sent out another prayer,” Karnes said. “No sooner did I finish, a lone fireman, Tommy Asher holding a fire extinguisher, jumped into the hole. It was just what we needed. Tommy stopped the fire. Three minutes longer and Jimeno could have burned alive.”

Firefighter Asher also had a radio and was able to call in more firefighters to help.

After Karnes helped Jimeno out of the debris, he saw there were about 600 people in a human chain, helping move supplies through the tangled steel during the rescue. Volunteer doctors were waiting to help just outside the debris, as well.

Karnes expedited Jimeno to Bellevue Hospital’s trauma center.  Others eventually freed McLoughlin and took him to the same hospital. Karnes visited the two men for the first three evenings to ensure they were doing well and slept at the hospital.  Afterwards, he slept on the pile at ground zero.

Karnes returned to Connecticut eight days later. He knew from the moment he learned the second tower was hit, he was going to reenlist. Karnes submitted his re-enlistment package, and less than two years later, he was back in the Corps as an infantry platoon sergeant in the Active Reserve. Karnes served for the next five years, deploying to the Philippines as well as a year and a half long tour to Iraq. He retired from the Marine Corps December 1, 2007.

Many Marines have fought, bled and paid the ultimate sacrifice because of the September 11 attacks. Karnes said the Marines are doing their jobs, protecting this nation, and helping to secure freedom for many people. He says of the Corps, “that’s what Marines do.”

“I did what God put me here to do and what the Marine Corps taught me to do,” he said. “God gave the orders and I executed them.”

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  • Military Love

    What an amazing story. All first responders as well as our active duty military and rescue volunteers who had helped during that fateful day are true American heroes. They didn’t want to see family members be faced with sadness over the loss of a loved ones but instead be gifted with happiness over hearing that their loved ones survived. For that, everyone should be very grateful. Sincerely, ML. 

  • Natalie Karnes

    god gave the orders,,,,,,, uncle dave. so whats next…..

  • Natale karnes

    i think god gave the order… to tell your story,,, uncle dave..

  • Frank McClain Wright

    OooRah Staff Sergeant

  • Ron_hartman02

    I head this story shortly after it happened and after seeing the movie and listening to SSgt Karnes speak in Pennsylvania it still motivates me every time I see or hear about his name and his courageous act.  We have always been taught sense bootcamp about courage, SSgt Karnes defines it.

  • Anonymous

    God bless the United States Marines Corps and God bless David Karnes and those like him.

    A curse on the Satanic enemies of America both foreign and domestic.
    God help our backslid nation to repent and be restored; to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ embrace our Godly heritage; to restore the fear of the Lord that leads to wisdom…
    …as we once did…

  • Don

    SSgt Karnes,
      Outstanding story, and well written by LCpl Wetzel.  Marines, Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Coastguardsman, and many others who posseses the love needed to help others in time of need, would do the same as you did.  But to have have love for others you must have God in your life, and that’s the bottom line.  Without God’s love, what is there? Great job Marine, and keep up the great work you do for God, Country, and Corps.  Semper Fidelis, MGySgt Funkhouser :-)

  • Guest

    I laugh every time I hear his story. 

  • Bijuterii argint

    Respect and wonderful story.

  • Alanperson

    i thank god that he has kept me on the path of becoming a united states marine go and retake the asvab next week if every thing goes well
    thank god for the UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
    p.s. uma become ont of the few the proud no matter what people say bout me

  • Joann

    Wonderful article from my son Lance Cpl. Daniel Wetzel

  • Natalie

    So much respect!!!!!!!!!!