NEW YORK – For years, authorities wondered about the identity of a U.S. Marine who appeared at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, helped find a pair of police officers buried in the rubble, then vanished.
Even the producers of the new film chronicling the rescue, "World Trade Center," couldn't locate the mystery serviceman, who had given his name only as Sgt. Thomas.
The puzzle was finally solved when one Jason Thomas, of Columbus, Ohio, saw a TV commercial for the new movie a few weeks ago as he relaxed on his couch.
His eyes widened as he saw two Marines with flashlights, hunting for survivors atop the smoldering ruins.
"That's us. That's me!" thought Thomas, who lived in Long Island during the attacks and now works as an officer in Ohio's Supreme Court.
Thomas, 32, hesitantly re-emerged last week to recount the role he played in the rescue of Port Authority police officers Will Jimeno and Sgt. John McLoughlin, who were entombed beneath 20 feet of debris when the twin towers collapsed.
Back in New York to speak of his experience and visit family, Thomas provided the AP with photographs of himself at ground zero. As further proof of his identity, the movie's producer, Michael Shamberg, said Thomas and Jimeno have spoken by phone and shared details only the two of them would know.
Thomas, who had been out of the Marine Corps about a year, was dropping his daughter off at his mother's Long Island home when she told him planes had struck the towers.
He retrieved his Marine uniform from his truck, sped to Manhattan and had just parked his car when one of the towers collapsed. Thomas ran toward the center of the ash cloud.
"Someone needed help. It didn't matter who," he said. "I didn't even have a plan. But I have all this training as a Marine, and all I could think was, 'My city is in need.'"
Thomas bumped into another ex-Marine, Staff Sgt. David Karnes, and the pair decided to search for survivors.
Carrying little more than flashlights and an infantryman's shovel, they climbed the mountain of debris, skirting dangerous crevasses and shards of red-hot metal, calling out "Is anyone down there? United States Marines!"
It was dark before they heard a response. The two crawled into a deep pit to find McLoughlin and Jimeno, injured but alive.
Jimeno would spend 13 hours in the pit before he was pulled free. Thomas stayed long enough to see him come up, but left due to exhaustion before McLoughlin, who remained pinned for another nine hours, was retrieved.
Thomas said he returned to ground zero every day for another 2 1/2 weeks to pitch in, then walked away and tried to forget.
"I didn't want to relive what took place that day," he said.
Shamberg said he apologized to Thomas for an inaccuracy in the film: Thomas is black, but the actor cast to portray him, William Mapother, is white. Filmmakers realized the mistake only after production had begun, Shamberg said.
Thomas laughed and gently chided the filmmakers, then politely declined to discuss it further. "I don't want to shed any negativity on what they were trying to show," he said.
As for his story, Thomas said he is gradually becoming more comfortable telling it.
"It's been like therapy," he said.