Cpl. Mark Finelli: Sept. 11 survivor

World Trade Center survivor fought in Fallujah, Iraq, now studies law at Liberty University

Liberty University students may recognize the name Cpl. Mark Finelli. An investment banker-turned Marine combat veteran-turned Liberty law student, Finelli made a radical career change when a plane full of people flew into his office building on Sept. 11, 2001.

Smile — Finelli stops for a picture with a local boy while deployed to Fallujah, Iraq. Finelli was overseas from June 2005 until February 2006. Photo provided

Three years out of Hampden-Sydney College with a major in history, Finelli worked as an investment banker with Morgan Stanley at the South Tower of the World Trade Center. He and some coworkers stopped for coffee on the 61st floor.

“And all of a sudden you heard a very small explosion, very quiet,” Finelli told the Farmville Herald a mere five days after Sept. 11. “You barely noticed it.”

Conversation stopped, and sheets of paper fluttered past the windows. Finelli told the Herald that being a skydiver prepared him to make split-second decisions. After stopping to grab his coat, cell phone and wallet, which he “shouldn’t have done,” Finelli raced for the stairs.

“By the time I got to the 11th floor, the lights flickered,” he told the Herald. “There was another very small sounding explosion, very light, the building shook maybe half an inch.”

Finelli continued down the stairs, beginning to smell jet fuel coming from the elevator shafts. Reaching the exit, he checked for falling debris before sprinting for the Hudson River.

“I was on the phone, and I saw everybody’s head turn, and that’s when the building fell,” he told the Herald. “I jumped over a gate that divided the Hudson River from the land, and, as the smoke came toward me and the debris, you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”

Finelli boarded a fire department boat for New Jersey, handing his life jacket to an injured woman. When he spoke to the Farmville Herald and students at his alma mater days afterward, Finelli said he felt guilty for not doing more.

“All those firemen who, I’m running out of the building and they’re running in. The first building came down, they’re still running in the second building,” he told the Herald. “These guys are the most heroic people. And my stepfather is a fireman in New York City, so the whole time I think he’s dead. My two best friends from high school worked in the other building. I’m not sure where they are.”

Two years later, Finelli enlisted in the Marine Corps to serve his country. He was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq in June 2005. Finelli boarded the bus leaving Camp Lejeune with the understanding “that I wasn’t coming back.”

“I said there was no way I could be this lucky — that I got through 61 flights of the South Tower on 9/11, and then I’m going to do a six month and three week tour at Fallujah in the infantry and not die,” he said. “So I got on the bus and cried like a baby because I didn’t think I was coming home. I admit it, I cried like a baby.”

Following his tour of duty, Finelli said it was simply fear of the unknown that had scared him.

“You go to Iraq and go weeks and months without anything happening, and you think, ‘What was I so scared for?’” he said. “But people do die — the 20th (of October) was the anniversary of when my three friends in my company got killed, so it’s tough.”

As part of Weapons Company, Finelli’s job was to guard the two main highways between Baghdad and Fallujah. He said guarding paved roads was good because the enemy could only plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the sides of the road.

“That’s how the guys in my company got killed,” Finelli said. “They rolled over a big IED that was buried.”

Since returning from Iraq, Finelli has been a consultant for Fox News, MSNBC and CNN for both his Sept. 11 experience and service in the Marine Corps. He obtained his MBA from the Warsaw School of Economics and the University of Arizona and is now pursuing a Juris Doctorate from Liberty University’s School of Law.

Finelli intends to work in the private sector for a while, but he said many people have asked him to run for office, “which is a big honor.” He referred anyone interested in his Sept. 11 story to Google his name and “I don’t believe it happened” — the story by the Farmville Herald.

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