‘Pain and Loss Beyond Our Choosing’ — A 9/11 Survivor’s Story

‘Why was I granted such a blessing beyond measure while so many others lost their loved ones?’

The World Trade Center burns Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.
The World Trade Center burns Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City. (photo: Jose Jimenez/Primera Hora / Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This interview was originally posted on Sept. 11, 2020.

“Why me? It was a question that haunted Michael Fineo after he escaped from Tower 1 of the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. He originally shared his story with me in Amazing Grace for Fathers and frequently speaks at memorial services so that we do not forget that fateful day.

“When I returned home after the surreal terror of 9/11, embracing my wife and children and thanking God for my life were the only things that mattered to me,” he said. “But why was I granted such a blessing beyond measure while so many others lost their loved ones?”

Often, while riding the train, Fineo prayed a Rosary for his family on his way to work — his wife, Roxane, whom he married in 1989, and their three children: Nicholas 9, Brianna, 5, and the baby, Samantha, who would turn 1 in December. When he got off the train on Sept. 11, 2001, it was a beautiful, sunny Tuesday. He arrived at the World Trade Center for his job as a fixed-income broker about 7am. At 8:46am, American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building, knocking him out of his seat. In his building alone, 1,402 employees died.

Here are excerpts from his horrifying story.

“I took the elevator up to the 25th floor, headed to the trading desk and quickly got on the phone with a customer amid the din of a busy trading floor. Then, just before 9am, a deafening explosion and some sort of impact rocked the building. I literally fell out of my chair. The building swayed like a reed but then righted itself. Outside, glass and paper showered down from above. Screams pierced the air as horrified faces looked around trying to make sense out of what had just happened. My best guess was that maybe the restaurant at the top had experienced an explosion or perhaps a small helicopter had crashed into the building.

“Within seconds, terrified people began evacuating. I stayed and answered the phone, explaining to another customer that something bad had just happened and we did not know what it was yet. Then, 30 seconds after the first impact, there was a second explosion. Later, I learned that after the first plane hit, jet fuel had spilled down the elevator shaft and ignited. A ball of fire careened down the shaft and exploded when it impacted the lobby. An old friend and colleague, Marie, shouted like a drill sergeant, ordering everyone to get out. My boss, Nick, was the last to leave the trading desk, following right behind me.

“When I tried to get onto the stairwell it was packed like sardines. I could not get on it. ‘Dear God,’ I pleaded. ‘Please let me see my family again.’ I frantically looked around. The elevators were not working. There was no way out. My eyes met a colleague, Oscar, who called to me. 

”“I know another way out,’ he told us. We gratefully followed him to a stairwell across from the men’s room. It was much smaller and narrower. I had always thought it was the door to a closet. Relief filled me as we headed down the stairs. When I arrived at the 16th floor, the second tower was hit. We felt the impact and inhaled the smell of jet fuel. It was clear that whatever was happening was no accident. 

“My only thoughts were prayers to God, pleading to see my family again. I could not mentally verbalize anything. Yet, I knew God felt my feelings and that was all I could manage. 

“When I reached the 12th floor, a voice echoed up the stairwell, commanding us to leave. It was the fire department. ‘There’s no way I’m getting off,’ I thought, fearing I’d never get back on. No one was willing to budge. The firemen squeezed their way past us. I flattened myself onto the railing and watched the seemingly fearless lieutenant mount the steps. Behind him were a dozen young men in fire suits and helmets, carrying axes and a fire hose.

“A woman just behind us struggled to help a man in his 60s down the stairs. He was asthmatic and the smoke that was descending had rendered him almost helpless. Another colleague, Bruce, and I each took an arm and helped him down. Water from the sprinkler system made the stairway slick, so each step to survival had to be carefully measured. 

“Finally, the door to the mezzanine level of the lobby opened, releasing a flood of people. A police officer who saw us helping the older man took over.  He warned us not look around, to just get out. But it was impossible to avoid seeing the pockets of fire and charred body parts strewn about.”

Although Fineo was safe, he looked back and saw the horror of people jumping from the building. One man was engulfed in flames going down in a stream of smoke. Fineo was with his boss and three colleagues. His boss lived in New Jersey and told them to get on the ferry and go to his house. Within a few minutes into the trip, Tower 2 went down. Dust and debris filled the air. Lower Manhattan completely disappeared from view.

Cell towers were beyond capacity, so Fineo was unable to call his wife. He prayed for God to comfort her, knowing she would be fearing for his life. Two hours later, he was finally able to get through to Roxane. For many minutes, they sobbed together on the phone. Transportation to and from the city was blocked, so not until the next day was he able to make it home. 

Roxane and their children came running out to meet him along with other relatives. The children yelled, “Daddy!” and jumped into his arms. “It was the sweetest sound I had ever heard,” Fineo said. “Roxane and I sobbed as we embraced. I was overcome with gratefulness to God and sheer joy at being reunited with my loved ones.”

Despite the joy and relief, Fineo struggled with survivor’s guilt in the months ahead. Why did he survive while others never returned home to their loved ones? 

Life gradually took on the usual routines again, but it was never the same again. Then, a year and a half later, in April 2003, Roxane was diagnosed with a brain tumor on her left optic nerve. An MRI revealed it was benign. Her surgery went well, but the following day, complications made her condition critical, putting her life in jeopardy.

On the day of the surgery, a priest had come to visit at the hospital, and Fineo shared that he still carried guilt for surviving while so many others did not. “Don’t you see?” the priest told him. “Who would take care of Roxane and the kids if you were not here? Your family needs you. God still has work for you to do.”

It was at that point that acceptance and understanding began to grow in Fineo. “I was here because God still had a purpose for me in this world,” he said. “It does not mean that those who died are not missed terribly, but it is God’s call. There is always pain and loss beyond our choosing. I do not need to feel guilty for still being with my family. I am a husband and a father, here at God’s bidding to love and serve those in my life.”

Roxane made a full recovery. “Our trials have been our triumphs,” Fineo explained. “Life’s joys have been magnified since our brushes with death. I would never had chosen to go through it, but I have grown because of it. Those of us who experienced 9/11 live life on a deeper level than we did before. We understand that love is what matters most. And that is a blessing.”

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