The 9/11’s Museum’s artifacts recall the thousands who perished, but also — as the boots of a sergeant pulled from the rubble show — the lucky few who survived.
The uppers of the black leather duty boots are scuffed, their laces worn. Their soles have completely disintegrated.
“They’ve been through an ordeal, you can tell that instantly,” said Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator of the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum.
But to J.J. McLoughlin, 28, they represent a miracle.
“It’s pretty incredible that someone caught beneath 220 stories wearing those boots was pulled out alive,” he said.
That someone was J.J.’s father, Port Authority Police Sgt. John McLoughlin, one of only 18 people to emerge from the wreckage of the World Trade Center after both buildings collapsed.
“It took a heroic effort from hundreds of people to get my dad out,” J.J. McLoughlin said. “There was a lot of bad stuff that day, but this is one piece you can look at and actually think, ‘Hey, there’s something positive.’”
McLoughlin, on duty in Midtown when the first plane hit, had years of experience at the World Trade Center. He rushed to the scene to organize evacuation efforts with a group of four junior officers. McLoughlin was leading them through the underground plaza between the two towers when the South Tower came down, burying them beneath 30 feet of twisted, burning rubble.
Only McLoughlin and rookie officer Will Jimeno survived the 22 hours it took to extract them from the wreckage — after an epic multi-agency effort that began when a pair of US Marines heard Jimeno’s faint cries for help. Scores of cops, firefighters and EMTs cheered as they helped ease McLoughlin’s stretcher out of the hole.
“That rescue really lifted the nation’s spirits,” Ramirez said. “No one knew then that there would be only one more human being found alive.”
The incredible story got the Hollywood treatment in the 2006 film “World Trade Center” directed by Oliver Stone, with Nicolas Cage in the role of McLoughlin.
“My dad is not a very sentimental guy,” J.J. said. Over the monthslong recuperation that followed, he saved only two items from his Sept. 11 uniform: his sergeant’s shield and his boots.
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“He credits the boots for saving his feet and allowing him to walk again,” the son explained. It was pure luck that McLoughlin was on patrol and wearing his Rocky public-service boots that day, rather than ordinary shoes for his shift on the desk.
“Where he got crushed, his dress shoes wouldn’t have offered any protection,” J.J. said. “But his boots did.”
McLoughlin, now 69, is “a private person,” his son said. “I think he appreciates the museum, but it’s not emotionally something that he wants to endure.”
So when the McLoughlins were cleaning out closets last year as they prepared to sell the family home in Goshen, NY, it was J.J. who saved his father’s 9/11 boots from the landfill.
“My dad said, ‘Throw ‘em out’ — he found no use for them,” J.J. said. “I’m not the most sentimental person either, but I think I understood that they had a little bit more significance than maybe he did.”
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, he contacted the shuttered museum and offered to donate the boots to its permanent collection, joining at least 20 other pairs of shoes — loafers, slippers, sneakers, stilettos — already in its treasury.
“Every one of these objects is testimony to someone’s very specific experience,” Ramirez said.
“In this case, it isn’t a story of escape, but a story of rushing in to help — and then the dramatic story of rescue,” she said.
Ramirez compared the museum’s 70,000-plus collected artifacts to the words in a dictionary: the building blocks of new narratives that deepen our understanding of Sept. 11 and its aftermath.
“We’re constantly building our vocabulary as historians,” she said. “Every time something comes into the collection, we add a puzzle piece.”
The museum also aims to pay tribute to the 2,977 people who were killed in the attacks, she said.
“We try to make sure that those statistics, as bold and horrifying and telegraphic as they are, never deprive us of the humanity behind each and every number,” Ramirez said
To fulfill that mission, curators continue to collect ordinary, telling objects — a childhood teddy bear, a pair of glasses, a piece of half-finished knitting — that speak to the lives of those lost.
“When families give us these objects, it’s an act of faith — faith in education, and faith that we can keep memory alive through the generations.”
By adding McLoughlin’s boots to the collection, Ramirez said, “I feel like another candle’s been lit.”