9/11 survivor: 'Almost does not feel real'

Michael Lettera, 40, of Westbury, stands across from

Michael Lettera, 40, of Westbury, stands across from Ground Zero. Lettera was working for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield on the 28th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower on September 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks. (May 5, 2011) (Credit: Chris Ware)

Michael Lettera of Westbury was getting ready to leave for work when he spotted the message on his BlackBerry Monday at 5:55 a.m. "Should be sleeping," a friend had written, "but so glad I was up to hear Obama's announcement about bin Laden."

A drowsy Lettera, who escaped from the 28th floor of the World Trade Center's north tower after it was struck on 9/11, was suddenly wide-awake. He rushed down a hallway, nearly tripping over himself, to turn on the living room television.

And there it was: The man whose act of terror had caused him years of troubling, even violent, dreams was finally dead.

"I was almost in disbelief," said Lettera, 40, "and it almost does not feel real to be talking to you about this. It was so many years in the making."

Lettera, a New York City employee who designs public health programs, remembers the day: " 'God, if I'm going to die, just let it be quick and painless,' " he thought as he made his way to safety before the towers fell and took 2,752 lives.

Lettera said news of bin Laden's killing opened wounds and produced a roiling mix of emotions: excitement and relief, but also a fear of retaliation and concern that American vigilance may now waver.

"I personally don't want to cheer," Lettera said. "I want to quietly be glad that he's gone and hope that we steel ourselves so that we can be even stronger."

When the first plane hit the north tower, Maxime Laboy was on the 17th floor of the south tower. Laboy, a trainer at a financial institute, and others made their way down to the mezzanine.

Laboy remembers seeing debris, papers and other "stuff" falling from the sky. Then she realized what the "stuff" was: "I didn't start panicking until I realized that part of what I was seeing was actually people."

She remembers getting outside and seeing the second plane strike -- and starting to run. Her next memory is being on a Brooklyn bus taking her home to Midwood.

Laboy said that when she heard bin Laden was dead, she felt almost feral "blood lust" for more acts of revenge, but also unease at having that reaction and shame about celebrations in the streets. Americans, she felt, should be better than to gloat over a death -- even that of Osama bin Laden.

"I am troubled by the duality of what I'm feeling," said Laboy, 47. "I have worked so hard over the last 10 years to gain a sense of compassion."

Peter Miller was finishing a coffee and oatmeal on the 65th floor of the north tower when it was hit. The building swayed, he said, and the floor felt like it dropped about four feet.

As Miller, a financial analyst for the Port Authority, and others descended the stairs, city firefighters were going up, already covered in sweat. He remembers thinking they had so much farther to climb.

Miller, 61, who lives in Manhattan, said he was stunned to learn of bin Laden's death. He acknowledged a sense of relief -- that the killing was right.

"But there is also the sense that gosh, it doesn't really change anything," said Miller, who is now retired. "There are bad men out there still trying to harm us. And all the people who died on Sept. 11, it doesn't bring them back."

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