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Miracles and Fate on 78

Story of a 9/11 Survivor An Interview with Ari Schonbrun

Ari Schonbrun had an enviable job. Focused, educated and determined, he was the global head of accounts receivable for Cantor Fitzgerald, whose company employed 960 employees in the World Trade Center, occupying the top five floors of Tower One.

Ari relished his work, the short train ride from his home in Cedarhurst, his high-tech office with a stunning view of the New York Harbor, the fast-paced excitement of a financial firm, and interacting with people around the globe.

 

He was normally at his office by 8:30 a.m. The week before Rosh Hashanah, in anticipation of taking off time for the Yomim Tovim, he tried to work longer hours, showing up earlier and going home later.

 

But on that glorious Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, Ari was running uncharacteristically late. He had just exited the elevator on the 78th floor and was about to board a second elevator to the top floors when the first plane hit.

 

At that instant of impact, everyone above floors 93-99, where American Airlines Flight 11 crashed, was doomed. 

 

Ari was supposed to be in his office on the 101st floor, booting up his computer, answering emails, returning phone calls – all the things he usually did at the start of his busy morning.

 

But that morning, he’d spent twenty fateful minutes filling out a book order for his son, who had just started school. Ari was annoyed at the delay, frustrated with his wife for asking him to stay and finish it when he was so busy at work.

 

Less than an hour later, Ari was one of the few employees of Cantor Fitzgerald who made it out of the burning towers, dazed and bruised, but alive. As we marked the thirteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, we spoke to Ari to hear of his experiences firsthand.

 

The following is Ari’s experience, in his own words.

 

– – – – –

 

I was born in Brooklyn and lived in the Bayswater section until my family made aliyah when I was fourteen. I lived in Israel until I was 21, then returned to New York after graduating from college. I met and married my aishes chayil, Joyce, neeScherzer, in 1985, and we are the parents of five wonderful children, ages 28-10.

 

I worked at United Mizrachi Bank for ten years and then joined Cantor Fitzgerald, a global financial services firm, which served as brokers to large financial institutions such as Solomon Brothers and Merill Lynch.

 

I’d been working at Cantor Fitzgerald for nearly a decade before 9/11 and had recently been promoted to head of global accounts receivable, managing all the company’s collections. This meant I was dealing with clients around the globe, who spoke different languages and had different time zones. Thus, I tried to be in the office every day before 8:30 in order to reach my clients in London, Hong Kong, and around the world.

 

Most of my co-workers were there even earlier, at around 7:30 a.m., to try and get an edge on the market before it opened for the day. The financial services business never goes to sleep. We always need to stay current, on top of the trends.

 

I usually left Cedarhurst at 7 o’clock after davening, caught a train to Manhattan, and headed to the World Trade Center, arriving in my office at around 8:30. However, the week before Yom Tov, I made a conscious effort to arrive at work early, because Rosh Hashanah was on Tuesday, smack in the middle of the week, and I’d be missing too many work days. The shul I daven in, Congregation Bais Medrash of Cedarhurst, also known as The Shtiebel, had two Shacharis minyanim each morning. The first minyan was usually upstairs, in the main vestibule, while the second minyan gathered downstairs, in the social hall.

 

The rov of our shtiebel, Rav Dovid Spiegel of Ostrov-Kalushin, preferred that both minyanim be upstairs. He asked the first minyan to start davening fifteen minutes earlier, so that the second minyan could start on time. And so it happened that instead of being delayed by Selichos, like most people, I was actually finished davening earlier than usual.

 

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the 23rd of Elul, had been a glorious morning, until the world turned upside down.

 

As I rushed out of my home, the sun had just risen and the sky was tinged with vibrant colors. There was a slight nip in the air as I walked to shul for Selichos and Shacharis with the first minyan. As I went home to eat something and grab my briefcase, I glanced at my watch: It was only 6:40 a.m. If I hurried, I could possibly be in my office by 8:15, giving me a head start to what would surely be a busy day. At around the same time, the hijackers were arriving at the airport, box cutters well hidden, preparing to unleash the most horrific devastation a twisted mind can conjure.

 

I came into the house and saw my then eight-year-old, our third child, bent over a book form. Baruch had just begun the school year as a third grader at HALB, the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, and his book order for a Scholastic reading program was due that day.

 

“Dad, can you help me fill out the book form?” he asked.

 

“Sorry, son, I’m running late,” I replied. “I have to be at the office early today. I’ll try to help you when I get back home.”

 

“But Dad, the book form is due today,” Baruch pleaded. “I wanted to show it to you last night, but I was sleeping when you got home from work.”

 

“Why didn’t you give it to me over the weekend?” I asked, annoyed. “I can’t take the time right now to do this. I’m in a rush.”

 

“I forgot to bring it home,” my son confessed, his eyes filling. “But I need to give in the form today. My teacher is waiting for it.”

 

Sensing his distress, my devoted wife, who has been in chinuch for thirty years, currently as the principal of the special education department of Bnos Bais Yaakov, was firm. “Ari, you’re not leaving the house until you fill out these forms,” she said.

 

Now, I’d like to make a confession. In those years, I wasn’t exactly an involved dad. I was very busy working, providing for my family, but I didn’t actually have the time or inclination to take off from the office and attend their school functions, after-school activities, etc. There was always too much to do and too little time in which to do it. 

 

“I’m working for the children,” I rationalized, whenever I declined to take part in their activities and milestones. “Someday they’ll thank me.”

 

My brush with death on 9/11 and miraculous escape from the burning tower changed my perspective. It was as if the haze obscuring my priorities suddenly lifted, giving me a bulls-eye view into what was truly important. But more on that later.

 

Seeing that my wife was adamant, I capitulated, albeit none too graciously. Still grumbling at my change of plans, I sat down and filled out the book order with Baruch, helping him decide which books he wanted to read that year. In total, the errand took about twenty minutes, time I didn’t think I was able to spare. As I rushed out of the house, Baruch’s thank you still ringing in my ear, all I felt was annoyance. Now I’ll be late to the office and my entire day will be off schedule. Why did I give in to his demands when I am so busy at work? And so forth.

 

It was those twenty crucial minutes that made all the difference in the world, for had I left my house at 6:40, as scheduled, I would have been in my office on the 101st floor, hard at work, when Flight 11 hit the first tower, crashing into floors 93-99. No one above the 92nd floor was able to escape alive. Of the 662 Cantor employees who were on the upper floors of the World Trade Center at the time, only four survived.

 

And I was one of them.

 

Ironically – call it G-d’s sense of humor – the two books my son chose to order that morning were from a series called “Survivor.”

 

But I didn’t know what Hashgachah had in store for me, for all of us, that morning. I was still annoyed by my tardiness as I exited the subway and entered the lobby of the World Trade Center. It was 8:40 a.m., only six minutes before impact.

 

I boarded the express elevator which would take me to the sky lobby on the 78th floor. From there, I would take a second elevator up to my office, at the top of the world.

 

I had just exited the express elevator at 8:46:30, when, according to accounts, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed at roughly 466 mph into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, between floors 93 and 99. The aircraft entered the tower intact, plowing into the building core, severing all three stairwells. A powerful shock wave traveled down to the ground and up again, shaking the building to its core.

 

I was standing in the sky lobby, eight feet from the elevators, when I heard a deafening explosion. The force of the impact threw me to the ground. It was so strong, the entire building began to shake, as the lights went out and the lobby filled with smoke. We were barely fifteen floors below impact, and the burning jet fuel had destroyed the core of the building.

 

We heard screaming, anguished shouts coming from above us, from my co-workers and those who were trapped in the burning building. Many of them chose to jump out the windows, toward certain death, to escape the raging inferno. I am very grateful that I didn’t see anyone actually jump or my emotional recovery would have been much more difficult.

 

Suddenly, the elevator I was about to board, leading to the top floors, jammed open. One of my co-workers, Virginia DiChiara, had been in the elevator with several others when the cables snapped from the jet’s impact. Almost immediately, the elevator went black and began bouncing like a ball. Burning jet fuel poured into the elevator walls, dousing them with flames.

 

Miraculously, the elevator jammed open a few inches, yet huge 1200-degree flames were coming down the shaft, blocking the exit.

 

Virginia and another workmate, Roy Bell, jumped through a wall of flames and squeezed open the door to get to safety. Roy’s fingers had been broken as he was thrown to the other side of the elevator during impact, but he was otherwise okay. Virginia was badly burned, and her skin was peeling. She had been rolling on the floor to put out the flames and was now in agony.

 

“Ari, help me,” she pleaded in a panic. “Don’t leave me.”

 

So now I was faced with a dilemma. Should I get out of the building as quickly as I could or help Virginia escape? Whose life came first? Virginia and I were co-workers, but we weren’t on the best of terms after an intense audit she conducted on my unit caused me lots of grief. 

 

Seeing her vulnerable and hurt, begging me not to leave her, I didn’t have to think twice.

 

“I won’t leave you, Virginia,” I promised. Along with several others, we had gone into a small security office, where we thought we’d be safe. One of the security guards tried calling for help, but there was no response.

 

Suddenly, a fire warden appeared and told us that there was a stairwell in the middle of the tower. We could either try to go down or wait for help. By then the entire floor was filled with smoke. Staying behind wasn’t an option.

 

Soon we joined the crush of people trying to get down the stairwell. None of the elevators were in operation anymore and it was clear that something serious happened. We didn’t know exactly what hit the towers, but the building was trembling. We knew we were in imminent danger.

 

Virginia and I made our way down the stairs slowly, one step at a time. Roy Bell walked ahead and I followed, with Virginia behind me. “If you feel like you have to fall, you can fall forward, and I’ll support you,” I said.

 

I have no recollection of how long it took us to go down 78 flights of stairs. Somewhere along the way, Virginia, in tremendous pain, said to me, “It had to be you, huh, Ari?”

 

When we reached the 75th floor, my cell phone suddenly rang. It was my wife, sobbing after she’d heard the shocking news: Two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. She was the one who broke the news to me that we’d been attacked by terrorists.

 

“I’m okay, Joyce,” I said to her. “We’re making our way down the stairs.”

 

The fact that she was able to reach me, when there was usually no cell phone reception in the building at all, was another act of Hashgachah. I was able to calm her fears, to assure her that I was okay.

 

My co-worker, Roy, then asked to use my phone a minute later, but he didn’t find a signal anymore. It was as if Hashem had arranged for the cell phone reception to go through so that my wife wouldn’t be frantic.

 

When we reached the 38th floor lobby, we encountered a large group of people who were being held up by firefighters, painstakingly making their way up the stairs to put out the fire. I kept asking, “Can someone help us? My co-worker is seriously burned.” Virginia looked terrible, and people screamed when they saw her singed hair and eyebrows.

 

The people in the stairwell squeezed over to let us pass (the others, who were not wounded, lost precious minutes waiting to go down)  and motioned for us to continue going downward, to get out of the building as fast as we could. Tragically, not one of those heroic firefighters survived.

 

I have no recollection of how long it took for us to get down. You do the math: We started our descent a few moments after the first plane crash and left the building only minutes before the first tower imploded.

 

Ironically, during one of my presentations, a member of the audience challenged me, saying it was “impossible” that we were able to descend all those flights and get out in time. I didn’t argue with him. After all, last time I checked, I’m still alive and kicking, boruch Hashem.

 

Ultimately, it was my decision to go slowly, to make sure Virginia got out in time, that saved my life. Had I gone down myself, I would have lingered near the building, trying to see if my friends got out, and been caught in the debris when it crumbled.

 

While our descent from the towers was painfully slow, we eventually reached the first floor of the mall, across the lobby from the North Tower. As soon as we exited onto the outdoor plaza, a police officer directed us to a triage center, across Church Street, in front of the Millennium Hotel. Virginia and I managed to stagger across the street and walked toward the triage center, where there were a whole fleet of ambulances lined up, ready to receive the large number of casualties expected. (In the end, there were very few seriously wounded patients. Either you survived unharmed or it was over very quickly.) 

 

I quickly led Virginia toward an ambulance and waited until she was comfortable. I decided to go back into the building and see if any of my co-workers needed help. It was then that Virginia, a shliach from Hashem, insisted that I stay with her.

 

“Ari, you’re staying with me,” she demanded. The initial shock had worn off, and she was writhing in agony from her burns.

 

“Virginia, you’re going to be okay. You don’t need me anymore,” I said.

 

But Virginia insisted I accompany her to the hospital, so I reluctantly climbed into the ambulance, which rushed to St. Vincent Hospital.

 

The ambulance had barely left the area when the second tower collapsed with a monumental roar. There is no doubt in my mind that had I not boarded the ambulance, I would have been buried under the rubble.

 

After ensuring that Virginia was taken to the ICU to receive emergency care, I left the hospital and wandered through the streets, shell-shocked, trying to find a phone or a way out of the city.

 

Most of the city, including mass transit, was shut down, and many phone lines were out of commission. I was invited into the apartment of a generous New Yorker, who let me use his phone. Thankfully, I was able to reassure my family that I was alive, that I’d escaped in time. I eventually walked to my brother’s office on 47th Street. He and I took an F train to Queens, eventually arriving in Cedarhurst via cab.

 

I arrived home at around 5:30 p.m., numb with shock. Boruch Hashem, I was spared the worst of the trauma and the horrific sights others saw, or I would have probably gone crazy from grief. The knowledge that 658 of my co-workers, with whom I’d spent every day for years, were buried in the rubble was something my mind couldn’t assimilate. Family members from across the world kept trying to reach me to reassure themselves that I truly survived.

 

At the same time, information was trickling in about some other Jewish employees in the World Trade Center who had tragically called their families to say farewell seconds before the towers collapsed. May Hashem avenge their blood.

 

After my miraculous escape, I should have felt euphoric, but instead, I was beset by horrific images. I felt that I couldn’t stay home alone, as the memories were too intense. Whenever I closed my eyes, all I could see was the image of towers falling, of my co-workers trapped inside.

 

Desperate to return to normalcy, I went back to work two days later at the Cantor disaster recovery site in New Jersey. (I continued working at the New Jersey site for nine months, taking a train, bus and boat to work, over two hours each way.) Yet I would never be the same person again. How could I? I’d been there, in the burning building, and was fortunate to have survived.

 

In hindsight, I could probably divide my life into two: before 9/11 and after. September 11, 2001, was the day of my rebirth.

 

Before the towers were hit, I was your average workaholic, who was “married” to my job, and was barely involved in the day-to-day activities of my family. After 9/11, I realized what I stood to lose and how close I had been to leaving my precious family behind.

 

Though I continued at Cantor Fitzgerald and am still employed there, my priorities did a 180-degree turn. I made a firm promise never to curse or use inappropriate language (endemic of the culture at Wall Street), which had a ripple effect on those around me. In fact, our entire office is now a clean-language environment.

 

When I speak to audiences around the world, I tell them, “I made a simple decision to change the way I talk, and look at its effect on the people around me. All you need to do is decide to become a better person, and by default you’ll make those around you become better, too.”

 

Another way my life has changed is my renewed focus on family. Though in the past I’d hesitated to take off for my children’s school functions, class plays or trips, today I don’t think twice.  Being there for my wife and children – our youngest was born three years after 9/11 and is today nine years old – is more important than anything.

 

Before 9/11, I’d been focusing on the wrong things, on getting ahead at work, earning more money, enjoying the outer trappings of life. Today my davening is a different davening and my learning is a different learning. I try to do more chessed and to share my message of survival with people around the world.

 

In September 2011, I published my story, titled “Miracles and Fate on 78,” referring to my location, the 78th floor, when the tower was hit. My book, which I distributed independently, has been described as revealing the “power of creating meaningful connections to transcend the differences that often divide us.”

 

Ultimately, I’m not an author who likes to speak, but a speaker who happened to write a book. For the past few years, I have been traveling across the country to share my story of miracles amid the destruction, I will be speaking in South Africa between November 4-10. I hope that my message – to live every moment fully, and to make the important things in life a priority – will resonate with my readers.