World Trade Center: an interview with U.S. Marshal Dominic Guadagnoli

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

On the eighteenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, Undicisettembre offers its readers the account of U.S. Marshal Dominic Guadagnoli, who rushed to the World Trade Center after the two plane crashes and experienced the collapses of the two towers at close range.

We wish to thank Dominic Guadagnoli for his kindness and willingness to share his experience.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a full account of what you saw and experience on 9/11?

Dominic Guadagnoli: At that time I worked for the Warrant Squad of the SDNY Marshals Office located on the third floor of the new US Courthouse, 500 Pearl Street, about five blocks away from the Twin Towers. My colleague John Svinos and I were planning an operation to arrest someone later that night that was wanted by the ATF. We were sitting at our desks and when the first tower was attacked, the explosion actually shook our building and we thought either our building or one of the other prominent city or federal buildings close by had been the target of a bomb. Within about a city two block radius you have two US Courthouses, the US attorney’s office, NYPD headquarters, federal prison (the Metropolitan Correctional Center), the New York State supreme court, the mayor’s office, 26 Federal Plaza – which was the office of many federal agencies including the FBI - NYC municipal building, NYC courthouse.

Within less than a minute you could see all the paper and debris floating to the ground between our buildings. However, as close as we were, from the angle of the courthouse we could not see the Trade Center or the towers. John and I immediately ran outside to see what happened. While we were out there people were telling us that a plane had just struck the Twin Towers. We couldn’t believe it so we ran over to see what was happening and that’s when the second plane was flown into the second tower. At that point, we realized that the city was under attack, most likely by terrorists. We ran back to our office to see what the plan of action was. At that time there was none. So we decided on our own to go start helping people out of the buildings. On our way out we ran into another US Marshal, Bill Schuchact, who wanted to go with us and we took him along.

We started at the doors of WTC 7 and down the tunnel to the lobby. I went down the escalators and came back up. There’s a tunnel, a mall down there which is a long walkway, it is huge. We were helping people out and telling them to go north or east. As you saw people it was like all the people had asthma, and they had a hard time and needed oxygen. I remember a young pregnant lady, someone was trying to help her walk. And so I helped get her across to the triage area and in your mind, once you got them there you are like “they are okay” and I turned around go back to help more people.

The first wave of people had jackets, purses, and were trying to use their cellphones; they were upset and concerned. The next wave were a little more haggard. They were more confused. But still not panicking. Some people couldn’t handle it, they were visibly shaken. The third wave had torn clothes, cuts and scratches, definitely more wet from the sprinklers, more tired. At first I thought it was sweat. That’s what it looked like and for some people it might have been, it was a hot day in the building, no AC. I realized what it was when I saw the last wave of people because of how wet they were. They just had to be wet from the sprinklers. They weren’t “jump in the pool soaked”, but they were pretty wet. Anyway, the final wave of people looked like they were in a battle; they were bleeding profusely, bad cuts, gashes, head wounds and some needed to be carried on some kind of makeshift stretcher.

I later learned that in the meantime, an employee of the Aon Corporation named Donna Spera and her coworkers from the 101st floor waited for an express elevator on the 78th floor, along with several hundred other people, so that they could get out of their building as quickly as possible. It was then that the second plane crashed directly into the 78th floor sky lobby. With the exception of Donna and only eleven other people, everyone in that sky lobby was killed. Every single coworker that Donna was standing with had died instantly. As fire and smoke consumed the floor where she stood, she crawled past dead coworkers and over shards of glass in search of the only remaining exit on that floor. Despite the fact that she was burned and bleeding, Donna climbed down 78 flights of stairs with the help of a coworker. When she reached the base of the building, she collapsed into my arms and I carried her to a triage that was set up across the street from the burning buildings. She wasn’t wet at all. Maybe the sprinklers didn’t work up there.

Though I tried to shield her from people snapping photos, an Associated Press photographer managed to capture a shot that would tie us together in history [picture below]. After putting Donna in the back of an ambulance, I returned to help people out of the Trade Center. Shortly after that, the first tower began to collapse and I just started running. Everyone scattered in different directions. I saw there was an overhang between buildings 5 and 7 so I was going to hide under there, and with the corner of my eye I saw John running a different way.

I fell on my hands and knees for a second and that’s when I cut my hands because I saw the blood, but I did like a “tuck and roll” onto my right side and I got up and continued running again. This is when I saw a subway stairwell across from the post office. There were two cars parked in front and I saw I had just enough room to get between those two cars. And that’s when the black cloud caught up to me and things just went dark. Just as I got to the top of the subway stairs, there was a female NYPD officer who was wearing a helmet. And we literally went shoulder to shoulder we dove down the stairs and it went totally black.

As that cloudless sunny day turned shockingly black as night, I feared that I was going to be crushed and buried alive. For a moment I thought it was the end of the world, I almost expected to see Jesus come out of the clouds.

When I came out of the subway, I was disoriented and I saw the LED display on the post office and it said “Yankees/Twins PPD”, meaning “postponed”. And that’s how I realized where I was.

So I was helping people and this young black guy came up to me and he had a mask on his face and he said “We need to get you some help.” And I said “What are you talking about?” I saw a guy with silver badge around his neck, Port Authority or NYPD, he had a flannel shirt on and his wrist and his bone was sticking out and another guy in uniform was helping him. So the black guy said “We need to get you some help.” and I didn’t realize that I had blood on my arms and on my hand, but I think the blood on my arm was from Donna. He took me into Saint Peter’s church and they had everyone in the back, like behind the altar in the room back there rinsing off. I took my jacket and shirt off and I took my gun off. And he was like “Whoa.” And I said “Just so you know, I’m a cop.” Someone came in and said “It’s not safe in here, we gotta get out of here. Everyone’s got to leave.” So they gave me a rag. I got my stuff back on and as I started walking out the same cop with the bone exposed was coming in.

So I started heading back toward the building and I walked up to a patrol officer and a sergeant and they said “You gotta go back.” I said “I’m looking for my partner.” And just then we heard that rumble again, that same noise.

So we all started running and I headed toward that church again and just as I hooked to the right, a police car was coming with the lights on and I started shouting “No, No, don’t go that way. Don’t go that way.” And he went past me. And when I looked back I saw that big cloud of dust coming down the street again. But this time, it blew right behind me.

I started running back to the office, and I was trying to think about how to get back. All I could think about was John and I thought I would take care of his family. I’d had them live with me, not sure how, but we’d take care of them. At that point I gave up and figured he was dead. I saw Bill after the first tower fell, so I knew he was okay.

So I started walking toward a Greek restaurant called Mt. Everest that John and I used to go to. They had no power and the door was half open and there was a uniform cop on a pay phone. I asked the people working there if they had seen John. They didn’t know who I was either and they said “Sorry we don’t know who you are talking about, we are closed, sorry.” I said “It’s me, Dominic, you know me and my partner John.” We went to lunch there all the time. For some reason I thought John might meet me at some place that we were comfortable, to rest, maybe get a drink. I don’t know. Then they recognized me and helped clean me up.

I finally got to the office and found out that John was there. When we finally saw each other we hugged and we cried. Bill showed up too and we hugged as well. We were then brought to a hospital outside of Manhattan because of the injuries we each sustained.

On the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, I learned of the photo of Donna and me. Because it was taken by an Associated Press photographer, it made its way into newspapers and magazines around the world. It was even published by Corriere della Sera on that day. About a month later, our families met at her home in New Jersey. We have since become very good friends and we both say our friendship is the one positive thing to have come out of that horrific day. I’m not sure why that picture got so much attention, maybe it’s because it shows man helping man.

Undicisettembre: What happened to you on the next days and months?

Dominic Guadagnoli: I can remember the days, weeks even months after 9/11 the brotherhood, solidarity and unity that was felt and shown to each other.

Many of us went out and bought flags. According to the St. Petersburg Times, on September 12, 2001, Walmart sold 116,000 flags as compared to only 6400 on that same day a year earlier. There were flags flown from every home and car. I remember seeing banners and bumper stickers professing love for our country everywhere. There were people in the streets of NYC holding signs that read “Thank you for what you did”, “Thank you heroes”. This went on for months and months. People were lined up to give blood, they volunteered and supplies arrived at ground zero almost instantaneously from across the country. Donations to charities skyrocketed. Reportedly, Americans donated close to two billion dollars.

It appeared as though barriers between people seemed to disappear. It didn’t matter if you were black or white, Spanish, Asian, or European in origin. You could have believed in Jesus, God, Buddha, Allah, or no one for that matter. The common dividers fell away in place of a common uniter. To me, it was obvious that together we shared in the hurt and we were never more proud to be Americans.

I saw signs of love, kindness, spirituality, and patriotism. One could see man helping man, and people were truly grateful for one another. People leaned on each other, hoping that they could somehow get through that moment, although at the time it seemed nearly impossible.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect the everyday work of the US Marshals even today?

Dominic Guadagnoli: I can’t say it affects it in a way like it does at the airports. Things like court security for the buildings were already pretty intense because of what happened in 1993 and because at that time there were eminent threats against several judges who presided over the hearings for 1993. The sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and his group had plotted to blow up the tunnels, the FBI headquarters, the US attorney’s office and the police headquarters. So because of that the Marshals already had the security enhanced.

Since then obviously with modern technology it had been enhanced more. I don’t think there’s any daily constant changes, but when it comes to protective services obviously they are more stringent regarding judges and any kind of intel that may in come in through any kind of agency like the Joint Terrorism Task Force or the FBI.

In our daily work I would say it’s something that affects us per se.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life?

Dominic Guadagnoli: I think I saw a thousand times the clocks showing 9:11. Yesterday morning I had a power outage and the time that was blinking was 9:11. It seems like every time I stop to look at the clock it says 9:11.

I still have issues sometimes with loud noises, I can be jumpy sometimes. One thing I notice is with the years that have gone on, each year when it gets close to the anniversary I seem to be a little bit more edgy, a little bit more short tempered. When the anniversary is close, a month before I start to feel more anxious, things annoy me more. People come up with this conspiracy theories and I would normally blow off them as “no big deal” but close to the anniversary it becomes more of an issue for me.

The day of the anniversary is a kind of a numb day, I’m numb, it’s an odd situation and the next days it goes away again. It never goes out of your mind, it’s on your mind 24/7; you are watching a TV program and you see the Twin Towers or jets flying and it reminds you of 9/11. There hasn’t been a day that has gone by that something doesn’t make you think about it. Some days it’s there prominently, some days it’s there a little bit, but it’s always there.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job?

Dominic Guadagnoli: I think it’s garbage. I don’t know how people can put that together in their minds and think that. Even if I weren’t there I can’t understand how people can come up with that; I think it’s a political thing or for personal attention.

I remember on the tenth anniversary I was here in Florida, I was driving down the road and I saw someone nailed to a tree a sign with www.911truth.org. I stopped my car, I ripped it off and threw it in the woods. That’s what I think about it.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of security today? Is the nation safer than in 2001?

Dominic Guadagnoli: I think there are mechanisms that are in place that make us feel safer, so in some ways yes, we learned hopefully. But being in law enforcement I walk around and as people say “You are as strong as your weakest link”; sometimes we go through security check points, such as at a concert or to a stadium, and they don’t check me, or the check this person but not that person.

I recently went to a well known amusement park in Florida, where there are shops and different things, I parked my car in the garage and I walked right in and the security guy just watched people come in. No one checked me. But if you go to Magic Kingdom they do a thumbprint, you get checked and you walk through magnetometers. Even my son, he’s a 15 year old kid and they looked in his bag and said “Ok, go ahead.” I know they profile and maybe he’s not the correct profile, they weighed the bag and made sure he didn’t have guns, but nowadays they should check everybody: I don’t care if it’s a fourteen year old or a hundred year old person. If you are willing to have security you must have security. Security is either 100% or it is not; if it is not 100%, why bother and why are you bothering people at all?

If we have to be 100% secure then be 100% secure, we can’t be picky and choosy. I think you have seen what happens in America with schools now; they are soft target, and even churches and supermarkets are soft targets. You saw what happened in New Zealand and El Paso and many other places. I don’t know what’s the right answer.

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