Living Through a National Tragedy

1/8/2002

Suffolk University alumnus Peter LaBelle had a front row seat to one of this country's most tragic moments.

"I was sitting at my computer when I heard this incredible sound just getting louder and louder," said LaBelle, who received his masters in business administration degree from Suffolk in 1978. "Then, all of a sudden, came this huge roar. That's when the first plane hit the World Trade Center."

He immediately got up from his chair and looked out the window of his corner office on the 24th floor of 7 World Trade Center in New York, right across the street of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The 30-year employee of the Internal Revenue Service couldn't believe what his eyes were seeing.

Viewing an enormous ball of flame, black smoke and debris filling the air, LaBelle raced down the hall, making certain his co-workers, including his wife, Nancy Kelley, were okay. Soon afterwards, everyone was ordered to evacuate. Around 5 p.m., the 48-story building he works in, which had been burning throughout the day, collapsed.

Three original paintings by his uncle, the late Harvey Ball, creator of the "Smiley Face," perished in the fire. Various personal achievement awards, family photos and files containing important information were also destroyed.

Although he lost all the physical possessions in his office, LaBelle, 52, is thankful for everyone and everything still around him. He knows it could have been a lot worse.

"I still have the important things - my life, my wife and my health," he said. So many people truly lost it all that day."

One of the items LaBelle lost was his Suffolk University diploma, which hung proudly on his office wall. He called Jean Neenan, Director of Alumni Relations for the College of Arts & Sciences at Suffolk University, and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

"Once in a great while one of our alumni will call because he or she lost their degree in a house fire," said Neenan. "After hearing Mr. LaBelle's story, I called our Registrar's Office and they sent him out a replacement degree free of charge. He was very appreciative."

According to LaBelle, receiving his Suffolk degree may have been better the second time around. "Being able to hang my Suffolk diploma and my other diplomas (he graduated from three other schools) back on my wall is one way of regaining a sense of normalcy in my life," he said. "The events of September 11th were surreal and I cannot erase them. But by replacing some of the physical possessions that I lost, I can more easily regain my equilibrium."

LaBelle, who was born in Worcester and now lives in Bayonne, New Jersey, spent 20 years working for the IRS in Boston before moving to New York 10 years ago. His temporary quarters are located in the Federal Building in downtown Manhattan, five blocks from his former place of business. Every day when he goes to work, he's reminded of the horrific events of 9-11-2001.

"I look at life a little bit differently now," said Peter LaBelle. "I'm much more aware of my safety and the people around me."

For more information, please contact Tony Ferullo at 617-573-8448

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