REMEMBERING 9/11: Theresa Rinaldi: ‘Fear is what I still remember to this day’

Ocoee resident Theresa Rinaldi was living on Long Island the day of the attacks. One friend survived. Another did not.

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The bouquet of three dozen red roses arrives at Donna Spera’s doorstep every year on Sept. 11.

Twenty years ago today, Spera was pulled from the crumbling structure of the World Trade Center by Deputy U.S. Marshal Dominic Guadagnoli.

One of Spera’s friends, Theresa Rinaldi, an Ocoee resident, said Guadagnoli has never missed a year.

“Every year he remembers her in a special way,” Rinaldi said. “What a brave man to go up all that way and carry her to safety.”

Rinaldi said she remembers the horrific day like it was yesterday.

Rinaldi was born in 1963, in Queens, New York, and moved in 1970 to Long Island, where she continued to live until 2001. She was on Long Island the day the planes hit.

“That day, that event, it’s something that no one ever forgets,” Rinaldi said, her voice quivering.

Rinaldi said she was sitting on her couch packing her suitcase on the morning of 9/11 when her friend called her and asked if she was watching TV. Rinaldi wasn’t but  scrambled to find the remote. She clicked the TV on, and the images left Rinaldi in shock.

“I just sat there,” she said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t real. It can’t be real.’”

She watched every event unfold that day. As she told her story, chills swept through her body.

“I was so scared,” Rinaldi said. “The only way that I can describe it was pure terror.”

She said at that moment, she had a million thoughts running through her head. She thought it was the beginning of World War III. She thought she was going to be attacked. She thought she was going to die.

Rinaldi’s home in Long Island was only 45 minutes away from the towers. She had no idea that Spera was trapped amid the chaos.

Spera, who worked as an administrative assistant in the World Trade Center, was severely injured while trying to escape the building that was quickly crumbling.

Guadagnoli found her on the 78th floor of the South Tower. The skin on her arms and back was melting from being badly burned, her knees were cut from crawling, her hand was shattered, and her scalp was beginning to bleed.

Guadagnoli carried her through the burning building and to safety.

“He made a promise not to leaver her,” Rinaldi said. “He saved her life.”

Guadagnoli, who had been working at a nearby courthouse that day, raced to the World Trade Center shortly after the planes hit. He saved numerous lives that day.

To this day, Guadagnoli and Spera remain close friends. They understand each other in ways no one else can. The tragedy will connect them forever.

Rinaldi said at the time, she had no idea Spera had been injured. She found out later from Spera’s husband, whom Rinaldi knew from high school.

In 2010, Spera and her husband came to Florida to visit Rinaldi. It was the first time Spera had gotten on a plane since the attack. Rinaldi said Spera had to take medication to calm her nerves. She has been through years of counseling, but nothing can erase the pain of that day.

However, Spera wasn’t the only one of Rinaldi’s friends who had been a victim to the deadly attack.

A year later, Rinaldi heard a familiar name announced at a 9/11 remembrance ceremony.

“They said Vincent Abate, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this cannot be the same Vincent I knew,” Rinaldi said.

Abate lost his life on the 105th floor of Tower One that day.

Rinaldi said she and Abate had dated for a short period of time when she was in her 30s. Rinaldi remembers him as being sweet, generous and a gentleman and having a great sense of sarcastic humor.

Rinaldi said she wished she had kept in touch with him and that she felt extremely guilty.

“It was shock; it was all shocking,” Rinaldi said. “To this day, I can’t even bring myself to watch the shows and documentaries and other films on 9/11. It’s just too real.”

Three weeks after the terrorist attack, Rinaldi moved to Florida.

Rinaldi said even though she had previously planned on moving to the area before 9/11, the attacks validated that the move was the right thing to do.

“Fear is what I still remember to this day,” Rinaldi said.

This year, Rinaldi will travel to Lakeland to spend 9/11 with a conservative Christian group.

Rinaldi said she implores the younger generation to educate themselves on the history of that day.

“Be aware of your surroundings,” Rinaldi said. “Please, please, promise to never forget.”





Annabelle Sikes

News Editor Annabelle Sikes was born in Boca Raton and moved to Orlando in 2018 to attend the University of Central Florida. She graduated from UCF in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sociology. Her past journalism experiences include serving as a web producer at the Orlando Sentinel, a reporter at The Community Paper, managing editor for NSM Today, digital manager at Centric Magazine and as an intern for the Orlando Weekly.

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