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7 Questions: 9/11 Survivor

January 31, 2010 | by Jenny Hazan

A 9-11 brush with death changed Ari Schonbrun's life. He thinks it should change yours, too.

Ari Schonbrun survived 9-11. A series of eerie coincidences led the 52-year-old father of five to emerge safely from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower (Tower One) moments before it collapsed, bringing down with it 658 of his 1,025 colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald.

Schonbrun, who worked tirelessly to rebuild the global financial services firm after 9-11 and now serves as a company director at their new headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, has spent the last eight years since 9-11 grappling with the events that shook his life, the nation, and the whole world, that ill-fated day. Why did it happen? Why was he spared? What is the meaning of it all? He shares with some of the answers.

Q1: Tell me what happened to you on September 11, 2001?

My day started late. Normally, I was at my office, on the 101st floor of Tower One, by 8:00-8:30 a.m., but I was helping my son, who was eight at the time, fill out his Scholastic book order. I was supposed to help him with it the night before, but didn’t get around to it. I finally negotiated him down to two books. Strangely, he chose them from a series called Survival. And I left for work.

I got to the office and I was changing elevators at the 78th floor sky lobby at 8:46 a.m. (you couldn’t take one elevator all the way to the 101st) when a blast threw me off my feet and the hallway filled with smoke. At the time I thought it was a bomb. Only afterwards did I realize it was the first plane striking the building. If I had been there a few minutes earlier, I would have been on the elevator going up to the 101st floor.

Virgina DiChiara, a coworker at Cantor Fitzgerald, was on that elevator and had to jump through fire to get out of it. I ran into her on the 78th floor. She was burned very badly, with third degree burns on her arms and back. She asked me to please stay with her. I sat her down and got her something to drink. Then the fire warden helped us to the stairwell.

If we wouldn’t have heard that voice, we would have been under the building when it collapsed.

We got down three flights when my cell-phone rang. This was one of the biggest miracles of the day. There was no reception anywhere; all lines were down. It was my wife. She had heard what happened and was terrified. This call was vital. At least she knew I was alive.

When Virginia and I finally got to the ground floor, a fire warden told us to keep going down and exit through the garage. As we went down, a voice called out and told us to come back up and exit from the ground floor. If we wouldn’t have heard, we would have been under the building when it collapsed.

Q2: How did you get away from the building before it collapsed?

Initially, I wanted to take the West Street exit, but we ended up taking the Church Street exit instead. Fortunately, this spared us from seeing the horror of people jumping from the building.

There was an ambulance across the street, in front of the Millennium Hotel. Virginia got in. I wanted to stay close to the building, but she insisted that I come with her. So I hopped into the front of the ambulance. If I wouldn’t have done that, I wouldn’t be talking to you today.

It never occurred to me that the towers would collapse the way they did. I saw the fire and the damage, but I didn’t think they would come down. I saw it happen from the entrance to St. Vincent’s Hospital.

When I look at that day, it’s such a miracle. It was like my own personal Purim story; a whole series of coincidences that when you look back, you realize were not coincidences, but instead were the hand of God.

Q3: What’s your personal take on why 9-11 happened?

On one level, the terrorists did it because they want the entire world to be subservient to Islam. If you’re not a Muslim, you’re an infidel.

But on another level, I believe that God was sending Wall Street a message. That world is driven by greed, where everyone is measured by their possessions. I believe this was a wake-up call. God was saying, “You’ve got it all wrong. This is not what it’s all about.”

Q4: Why do you think you were saved?

There are two reasons, I believe. The personal one is that when my wife was pregnant with our third child, she had an ovarian cyst that caused her to lose the baby. Then, after she gave birth to our fourth child, the doctors told her she would not be able to conceive again. After 9-11, she miraculously got pregnant with our fifth child. We went to a Kabbalist who told us that Yoni, who is now 6, was the soul of the baby we lost; a soul that needed to come into this world. So when you ask me why I survived 9-11, my first reason is that this soul had to come down.

The second reason I believe is to use my public speaking skills to convey a message; to inspire people of all faiths to re-prioritize; to have faith in God; to give a little bit more charity, be kinder to people, and not speak ill of others. It doesn’t matter where you’re at, what matters is that you are moving forward. You want to know how to change the world? One person at a time. One mitzvah at a time.

Q5: How has the experience changed your life?

My life has changed in so many ways. I spend a lot of time public speaking and spreading the message. I have done speaking tours in the U.S., U.K. and Israel, to all kinds of groups: universities, high schools, different organizations.

Some people have come up to me and said, “You have changed my life.” That is so powerful. I have been given this ability, and I have to use it. I am not nearly done. There is so much more to do, so many more people to reach.

Before 9-11, my whole world was consumed by Wall Street. I still work hard, but work is no longer my first, second and third priority.

My personal life has changed, too. Before 9-11, my whole world was consumed by Wall Street. I still work hard, but work is no longer my first, second and third priority. I spend more time with my family. It used to be, “Daddy can’t make it to the school play or the class trip because he’s working late,” but now I go. I am there more for my kids than I have ever been.

Also in terms of Jewish observance, as I started talking about what happened, the miracles of the day started to sink in and I started to change. I now take time to learn Torah and to perform more mitzvot. For instance, at the office I started gathering a daily minyan for Mincha. I have also tried to be more careful about the types of words that come out of my mouth, to stop cursing.

I am trying to become a better person. People who know what I have been through feel that I am a bit different.

Q6: How do you respond to conjectures that 9-11 was part of an international Jewish conspiracy?

If Jews were in on 9-11, then how come I didn’t get a call? Many of my Jewish friends and colleagues were there. You know how many people who died in the towers that day were Jewish? Israelis, too. The whole thing is ridiculous.

Q7: What do you think of efforts to memorialize 9-11?

It’s horrible that there is a 9-11 memorial in Israel and we still don’t have one in New York. The whole thing has become political, with a lot of infighting, with people who are making decisions who should not be involved at all. It’s the families of the victims who should be the ones making the decisions. It’s their loved ones being memorialized and yet they are being left out.

Thankfully, the idea of randomizing the names was withdrawn, as well as the idea of building the memorial on the footprint, which is the burial ground for a lot of people who were never found.

There is the annual memorial ceremony, carried by every network. But I am fearful that memorial day for 9-11 will become like Memorial Day in the U.S., marked by shopping and picnics and parties. Although the day is being memorialized, it is also being forgotten. It’s not being taught enough. People don’t want to talk about it. They want to move on and I think that’s a mistake. To move on is to let the terrorists win. 9-11 needs to be remembered. We cannot forget.

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