Feature writing

Special feature

9/11 Ten Years On: The Survivors – Donna Spera

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 towersBrian 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. 

“One of the guys on our floor said, ‘Let’s get the f*** out of here.’ We took the stairs down. I was hysterical, crying. We got down to the low 70s-floors, that’s when they made the announcement that our building was secure, so we made our way back up to the ‘sky lobby’ of the 78th floor with its elevator banks. My friends and I were going to get an express elevator down. Others went back to their desks. They would die.

“There were about 200 people on the 78th floor when the second plane hit: I was one of only 12 that survived. I went flying but stayed conscious. My friend Casey died next to me. I still ask myself, ‘Why did she die and I survive?’ I’m short, not even 5ft: that’s the only explanation I can think of. I don’t have kids; everyone who died did. I feel guilty about that.

“In the darkness I and two other people followed the voice of this guy – I don’t know who it was – to go down a set of stairs. We passed my friend Michelle running up to get her backpack. She never made it out. I was hysterical and injured – my arms were burnt – but I didn’t feel any pain because of adrenalin. I was focused on getting out to see my husband, Ted. Outside, I literally fell to the ground.

“Dominic swooped me up. I remember photographers and saying, ‘Don’t take my picture,’ and, to Dominic, ‘Don’t let go of me.’ He stayed with me the whole time in triage. I was taken to a hospital in Brooklyn. That’s when the pain kicked in: I had gashes all over, including my shoulders and head, second- degree burns. I remember my husband finding me that afternoon in my hospital bed and running into the bathroom to be sick.

“Two days after 9/11, the nurses showed me the newspaper with the picture of me. I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s not how I want to be famous – crying with blood all over me.’ The picture was published all over the world. TV shows wanted to ‘reunite’ us. What were they waiting for? I’m married, he’s married. If that picture stays in people’s minds, don’t use it as a way to remember me, but to remember all those who died or were injured.

“I am too injured to go back to work. As I physically healed, my mental state deteriorated. I have no patience for people. I couldn’t sit at a desk, especially one in a high-rise building. I live in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and I haven’t been back to Manhattan. I don’t like being away from home for too long, even if I’m going shopping. I don’t go near bridges. I am scared of being buried. Ever since, I have had a fear of dark-skinned people. I know it’s irrational and prejudiced and am trying to fight it. I blame 9/11 for not having children: I miscarried once afterwards and then we found we couldn’t.”