She almost died on September 11. How an NJ survivor found purpose after years of suffering.

Twenty years later, Donna Spera remains an open wound.

Spera has lived more than 7,300 days since September 11, 2001. But the weather did not allow her to escape this late summer morning.

The sudden impact of the plane. His dying colleagues. A miracle escape in 78 flights of stairs.

Spera, 56, wears it all.

“When I was running out of the building, they were rushing into the building,” Spera said of the firefighters responding to hell in the south tower of the World Trade Center. “And this vision is in my head. It will never go away. “

For many years, Spera of Middletown was engulfed in her emotions. She was angry at the terrorist attacks that killed her colleagues and felt immensely guilty for surviving. Then she found a new purpose, or as she sees it, her calling.

In 2018, Spera helped launch a charity golf event to raise funds for the families of deceased first responders. It started small. A few groups of people and around $ 8,000, she said. But that feeling of giving back filled a giant void and sparked a new mission. The event grows every year and has raised over $ 30,000 to date.

On Friday, Golfing for Heroes will host its fourth annual outing at the Gambler Ridge Golf Club in Cream Ridge. Proceeds from the sale will be donated to the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which helps pay off mortgages for deceased law enforcement officers and firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty or due to related illnesses. to September 11.

Each year, Spera gives a speech beforehand. It’s a brief introduction, but it gets so emotional that she can barely pull it off.

“It makes me feel alive,” Spera told NJ Advance Media. “It helps me heal, knowing that I am helping someone’s family. And it could have been their husband or wife saving me on September 11. “

Donna Spera was only 36 years old, she was an administrative assistant for AON Financial Services, an insurance brokerage company with offices at the World Trade Center when she showed up for work on Tuesday morning. She went to work on the 100th floor every day.

In the chaos of September 11 – after a plane had already crashed into the North Tower – Spera stood in the Sky Hall on the 78th floor, waiting for a ride to exit the South Tower.

She doesn’t like to talk about what happened next.

Deputy US Marshal Dominic Guadagnoli assists Donna Spera after being injured in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (AP Photo / Gulnara Samoilova)PA

United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the 77th to 85th floors of the tower. Bruised, beaten and burnt by kerosene, Spera rose from the tangle of bodies and escaped through a surviving staircase.

Outside, the adrenaline wore off. Spera collapses in the arms of US Vice-Marshal Dominic Guadagnoli. A photographer took a photo. The image of his anguished face, of dried blood splashing on his forehead, was shared around the world.

Spera was in the hospital when a nurse showed him the photo. She cried.

Spera survived, but in some ways she said no.

“I always say I was a different person after 9/11,” she said.

Elevators and escalators have gotten too scary. Get in a plane ? Back in Lower Manhattan? No chance.

Like an anchor, guilt weighed on her. She couldn’t help but think of those who died in the attack.

“The guilt of the survivor. I don’t think it will ever go away, ”Spera said. “I always, always, always, always say, ‘I don’t know how I survived and my friends were two feet away from me, and they didn’t.'”

But with the guilt came the gratitude for the first responders who risked and, in many cases, lost their lives that day.

The Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which will receive funds raised during this year’s golf outing, honors the memory of Brooklyn firefighter Stephen Siller.

Siller was about to play golf on September 11 when he heard of the attack. With traffic blocked, he walked through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center, where he died trying to save the others.

After so many years, Spera discovered that escaping 9/11 was not what satisfied her. It is to ensure that the sacrifices made that day are appreciated.

“People who weren’t there, it’s just everyday life for them,” Spera said. “All the first responders who were there that day are living with them for the rest of their lives, just like it was with me for the rest of my life.

“I will never forget that day. And I will make sure that no one forgets that day.

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Adam Clark can be reached at [email protected]. Got a tip or an idea for a post on New Jersey schools? Send it here.

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