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9/11 survivor fights guilt to share story, encourage remembrance

ST. PETERSBURG — The first plane struck the north tower with such force that it knocked Michael Fineo from his chair.

As the World Trade Center building swayed and his colleagues struggled to their feet, he remembers thinking it could have been a kitchen fire. In the stairwell, when the second boom sounded, he realized it wasn't an accident.

He remembers the first firefighters passing him, heading up the stairs as he headed down from the 25th floor.

"They were young, and they were sweating, and they were carrying gear, and their eyes were huge," Fineo told a crowd of 700 gathered Wednesday at St. Petersburg's Coliseum to commemorate the anniversary. "They knew what they were going into."

Fineo lost friends that day, most of them co-workers at Garban Intercapital, where he worked as a money market broker. He thinks about them, and those firefighters, every day. Survivor's guilt weighs heavily, but he's grateful he can still feel.

The 49-year-old Safety Harbor resident shares his story because he doesn't want people to forget the tragedy and solidarity of that day. And he wants the younger generation, like his 12-year-old daughter, Samantha, to understand why it matters.

"We've got a short memory," Fineo said. "It's sad, but it's true."

Near the back of the Coliseum's ballroom, a group of teenagers in white uniforms watched as Fineo spoke. A video shown before Fineo took the stage showed the second plane crashing into the second tower.

It was the first time Mitchell Linder, 17, had seen video of a plane hitting the building.

"We were in kindergarten," said Linder, who was attending the breakfast as part of the Admiral Farragut Academy drill team. "I've never seen it."

Linder remembers teachers talking about the towers falling but never really understood until Wednesday.

Fineo talked about what it was like to watch the buildings come down from a ferry, where he and other evacuees were herded.

"Lower Manhattan disappeared from sight, completely covered in a thick cloud of dust," Fineo said.

Another Admiral Farragut student, Patrick Hales, 14, had never heard a survivor speak. He was 2 on Sept. 11, 2001.

"You don't really get the feel of it — how it felt for him — but you want to try to understand what he'd gone through," Hales said.

• • •

When the towers were hit, Fineo had three small children: Nicholas, 9; Brianna, 5; and Samantha, 9 months. He used to bring Brianna to show off at work.

After the attacks, he'd get drunk and return to the hole where the towers had stood.

Fineo eventually decided he had to leave Wall Street and relocated his family first to Clearwater, then Safety Harbor. He now owns a floor treatment company.

"It's been the healthiest thing, on so many levels, for us as a family to have done," Fineo said.

The last time he shared his story, with a group of Florida International University students on the attacks' 10th anniversary, he was struck by the media interviews he saw later. Some of the students said it was the first time they'd grasped the full weight of it.

Before he spoke Wednesday, he took his youngest, Samantha, aside. He wanted to make sure she was familiar with what he was going to say. It was the first time she heard him speak about the attacks.

"I knew that she really didn't completely digest what happened that day," Fineo said. "Not even just to me, but to our country."

Claire Wiseman can be reached at cwiseman@tampabay.com. On Twitter: @clairelwiseman.

9/11 survivor fights guilt to share story, encourage remembrance 09/11/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 10:45pm]

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