Amid the tragedies and horrors of September 11, 2001, and the thousands of lives that were ended or forever changed, there exist heartwarming stories of survivors, heroes and miracles. Cantor Fitzgerald, a premier capital market investment bank that occupied floors 101 to 105 of the World Trade Center, lost two thirds of its total workforce on that day. Of the 662 Cantor employees who were in the office that morning, only four survived. Ari Schonbrun, the company’s chief administrative officer of capital markets, was the only employee present in the towers that day who walked away physically unscathed. He has made it his life’s mission to tell his miraculous story.
On September 8, he shared this story with the student body and faculty of the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, at the school’s commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, as part of its weekly SEED (student enrichment education and development) program. The program began with an HBO documentary chronicling the 102 minutes that forever changed America and the world. For the adults in attendance, this was footage they had seen before, yet there was not a dry eye in the room. For the students, this year represented the first in which most ninth graders were born after that fateful day. For them, much of this was new. For everyone, it was unbelievably powerful.
Commented one RKYHS junior, “I had never seen some of that footage before. It was hard to watch. I could not believe it.”
At the end of the film, a light went on in the front of the auditorium and a man stepped forward. In a room filled with high school students, the only sound that could be heard for a full 30 seconds was the sniffles of audience members, and the man himself, as they composed themselves.
Ari Schonbrun then began to tell his story, emphasizing not the horrors of that day, but the confluence of coincidences and miracles that allowed him to survive.
“9/11, for me, was a day filled with miracles,” he told the audience.
“That morning, I was ready to go to work when my wife reminded me to help our 8-year-old son with his Scholastic book order. I finally got him down to two books, coincidentally from a series called ‘Survivor,’” Schonbrun remembered. “That book order was due on September 10, but my son forgot to bring home the sheet over the weekend and the teacher gave him an extension. I was supposed to help him on Monday evening, but I didn’t, so we had to do it on Tuesday morning. Had he brought it home on Friday, or had we done it Monday evening, I would not be here today telling you this story.”
Instead of arriving at the Trade Center at 8 a.m., he got there at 8:40. Instead of being at his desk on the 101st floor when the first plane struck, he was in the 78th floor lobby, waiting to take a second elevator to his floor. At 8:46 a.m., “a bomb went off in the elevator,” or so he thought. Somehow, amidst the chaos, he found a colleague who had jumped from the elevator that he had been about to board, with third-degree burns all over her body from what they later learned was the jet fuel that had poured into the elevator immediately following impact, causing a spontaneous fire.
“Virginia, I promise I will not leave you and we will get out of here,” Schonbrun told his coworker.
As they tried to figure out the best way to safety, the floor’s fire warden uttered the words that would stay with Schonbrun always. “Stairwell on the left.”
“Today, whenever I walk into a building, I always look for the sign that says ‘exit.’ The ‘exit’ sign that day was one of the miracles that helped save us,” he said.
Through gentle coaxing, physical support and a lot of ingenuity and luck, Schonbrun managed to get Virginia all the way to the first floor. They continued down toward the garage, from where they hoped to escape the building. However, two floors below the first, a door opened from above them and a voice said there was no exit from the garage and they should come back to the first floor.
“I heard later that there were people in that garage who never got out. Who was that voice? I don’t know. I never saw him. I only heard a voice, but that guy saved my life,” Schonbrun recalled.
Schonbrun planned to put Virginia into an ambulance and then return to the buildings to help. “Virginia told the ambulance driver that they were not leaving unless I went with them. I thought it might help her to have me there, so I got in front and we pulled away,” he recounted. “I was in one of only a few ambulances that got away that day.”
“Virginia thanks me for saving her life, and I say, ‘No, you’ve got it all wrong. If you hadn’t insisted I get into the ambulance I would have been at the base of the World Trade Center when the building collapsed and I would be dead.’”
With his story told, Schonbrun looked at the assembled students and faculty and delivered his message. “I learned something that day. I work on Wall Street. It’s all about greed and I was guilty of the exact same thing. Until that day. ‘Daddy’s gotta work.’ That had always been the refrain. Today, I am at that school play and class trip. Because I learned that nothing is more important than family. The job will be there tomorrow. The work will certainly be there tomorrow. I want to make sure that my kids and grandkids know that I love them.”
Schonbrun continued, “I was plucked out of that burning building and given a second chance. I changed. My davening has improved. My learning has improved.”
He then beseeched those assembled to “take upon yourself one mitzvah that you are not doing today and start doing it, or take one that you’re doing but not doing well, and do it better. One mitzvah will lead to another, like one candle lighting another until it illuminates a room.”
“We are often too busy to hear the little whispers God throws at us, and sometimes He throws a brick to wake us up. I was hit with a brick. You can listen to the whispers or wait for the brick. Choose to listen,” he concluded.
As Rudy Giuliani, mayor of the city of New York on 9/11, stated in the documentary, “We will never know all the heroes of that day.”
The students and faculty of RKYHS had the great privilege of hearing from one of them.
By Jill Kirsch