PUNTA GORDA — Sept. 11, 2001, Michael Fineo arrived at the World Trade Center around 7 a.m., where he worked as a fixed income broker. It was a warm, sunny Tuesday, “a typical day in every sense of the word.”
That was until 8:46 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the building, knocking him out of his seat. In the first tower alone, 1,402 employees died that day but Fineo was not one of them.
“’Why me?’ is a question often posted to God by people forced to endure hardships,” he said at the Military Heritage Museum Wednesday. “Ironically, it’s the exact same question asked by people who survive a catastrophe while others die.”
Fineo, who now lives in Clearwater, described his experience to a crowd of first responders and community members gathered in Punta Gorda Wednesday for a remembrance of Patriot Day. He spoke along with members of law enforcement and fire departments from Punta Gorda and Charlotte County.
Fineo said at first, he thought there must have been an accident at the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center.
“We never lost power,” he said. “The lights were still on, phones were ringing, monitors and TVs were on. We had no idea what had just happened.”
When he decided to leave the building, one of his colleagues put water into milk jugs and gave him napkins to wet down and use to filter the air if they encountered smoke on their way out. They were at the 16th floor when the second tower was hit.
“We heard that, and we felt it, and the stairwell went silent,” he said. “Everyone realized this was no accident and fear settled in. I tried to pray, but I couldn’t remember a word of any of the prayers I had prayed my whole life. I just begged God, ‘Please help.’”
The stairwell grew more and more crowded as employees made their way down, and eventually they had to make room for firefighters coming up.
“I remember thinking they were all my age,” Fineo said. “These were young, brave, fearless firefighters climbing up carrying gear. I don’t know if they ever made it down.”
Outside, he and others were ushered to the World Financial Center on the Hudson River, where they were able to look back for the first time.
“It was surreal,” he said. “Both towers were engulfed in flames, windows filled with desperate, trapped victims. We watched as people jumped, people on fire, people holding hands and jumping together.”
He eventually took a ferry to New Jersey, where he went to his boss’s house and was able to call his wife for the first time.
“When we finally heard each other’s voice, I could barely talk,” he said. “I just told her I was okay. We just cried.”
Fineo had three young children at the time — a 9-year-old son, a 5-year-old daughter, and a 9-month-old baby girl. When he came home the next day, hearing them call him ‘Daddy’ was the sweetest sound he’d ever heard, he said. But he wondered why he survived and so many others did not.
He went to mass the next day after taking his son to school, where he admitted to the priest he felt guilty for surviving.
“Why did God allow me to return to my family?” he asked. “I knew my colleagues loved their spouses and their children. So many never had the chance to see their families again.”
It’s a question he still doesn’t fully understand. He has watched his fellow survivors deal with it in different ways.
“Some of us have physical scars,” he said. “We all have invisible wounds that never healed. I know survivors who never returned to work. Some returned to work and never spoke a word about 9/11. Some changed their lives for the better, some for the worse, and some not at all. No one way is the right way.”
Although he once told his daughter he doesn’t like talking about 9/11, he said he’s realized telling his story helps others connect more personally to the tragedy of that day. It’s a way to move from pain to purpose.
He finished by thanking all first responders for the sacrifice they and their families make every day.
“May we never forget Sept. 11, 2001,” he said.