Feature writing

Special feature

9/11 Ten Years On: The Survivors – Dominic Guadagnoli

The Times

September 3, 2011


Ten years have passed since September 11, 2001, but what has happened to some of the people caught up in that momentous day? In this special feature, we meet the survivors, such as the dust-covered bank teller and the businessman whose images came to symbolise New York’s remarkable spirit.

We speak to the retired fireman who went to the site to help and ended up standing next to President Bush, and to an injured young woman and the marshal who carried her from the ruins of the twin towers. Brian Clark and Stanley Praimnath recount their escape from the southern tower, two of only four survivors from above the point of impact. Howard W. Lutnick, CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, reveals the emotional cost of losing 658 employees, including his brother, and four widows describe grieving for their husbands.

Vivid, shocking, upsetting, inspiring: their stories embody a day that remains impossible to forget.


US marshal Dominic Guadagnoli, 42, was photographed carrying administrative assistant Donna Spera, 46, who had escaped from the southern tower, to safety. The two remain friends today. Guadagnoli lives in Pensacola, Florida. He is married with two children. Spera lives in Old Bridge, New Jersey, with her husband. 

“I was having coffee in my office, a block from the World Trade Centre, when I heard a huge boom. A colleague and I ran down Broadway. The first people coming out of the buildings were hurt, emotional, crying, but not hysterical – just confused. The next wave were more upset, perplexed, wet – sweat or sprinklers, I guessed – clothes torn, covered in soot, in shock, quieter. I helped them to the triage centre that had been set up at the Millennium hotel. The next wave were bleeding, crying, screaming: the walking wounded.

“Donna was handed to me by some guys in shirts and ties. I snatched her up and carried her to the triage centre. She said, ‘My back hurts, don’t let me go.’ I saw photographers taking her picture and I felt like saying, ‘Put your cameras down and help people,’ but I knew they had jobs to do. If you look at the picture I’m trying to turn away, saying, ‘Don’t take a picture of this poor woman.’

“At the triage centre Donna said, ‘Don’t leave me.’ ‘You’re going to be all right,’ I told her. ‘You’re going to go home to your family. You’ll see your husband and kids.’ She doesn’t have kids, but I didn’t know that. An ambulance took her away.

“Ten minutes later there was a rumbling sound, the southern tower falling. I ran towards the towers, then thought, ‘What am I doing?’ and ran north. I thought, ‘I’m going to get buried alive. I can’t outrun this building.’ At that point, a guardian angel pushed me towards a subway stair. I dived down there. Then everything went black and I thought, ‘I don’t want to be buried here,’ so I went back up to the street.

“I ran towards the Trade Centre. There was another huge rumbling, deep and guttural. ‘S***, I can’t believe it’s going to happen again,’ I thought as the northern tower fell. I cheated death once. I wouldn’t again. But I made it back to the office and called my dad. That night I watched my one-year-old sleep and listened to the fire engines go by, wondering, ‘What happened to that girl Donna?’

“The photograph of me carrying her appeared in the papers next day. TV shows called to see if we’d be reunited. We’re both Italian-Americans so when we met about a month afterwards, we ate, drank wine, hugged, cried. The media wanted us to be together romantically. ‘If you and Donna weren’t married, would you be attracted to her?’ someone asked. She’s constantly referred to as ‘the girl’ and I’m ‘the marshal’. I joked we should have a tryst out of town. But there are none of those feelings. We love our partners very much. Every day for the past ten years that photograph hasn’t gone away; I’ve given talks, speeches, been on TV. It’s not that it isn’t important to me – but I am tired of it.

“I’ve moved to Pensacola, Florida, but I’ll never forget that day. My life physically, emotionally and spiritually changed in an instant. I cheated death twice. For a year afterwards, loud noises made me jump. At an air display the sound of the airplanes freaked me out so much I screamed, ‘Get me out of here!’ and curled up in a ball. Donna and I haven’t seen each other in four years but we e-mail, text and I send her flowers every 9/11. We will always be friends.”