On the morning of September 11, 2001, Ari Schonbrun, who was headed to his office at Cantor Fitzgerald in the World Trade Center where he is in charge of global accounts receivable, considered a last-minute assignment from his wife to be an annoyance.
It turned out to be a miracle.
At the door of his home in suburban Long Island, Schonbrun heard his wife, Joyce, yell from upstairs, "Did you do Baruch's school order?"
Baruch is the couple's then-8-year-old son. His order form for school books and games was due that morning. Schonbrun had meant to help Baruch with it the previous night – but, working late that Monday night to make up for time he would miss during the upcoming High Holidays, he'd arrived home by the time Baruch had fallen asleep.
"You're not leaving the house until you do it," Schonbrun's wife declared.
He sat down with Baruch.
He missed his commuter train.
He got to work later than usual.
His office was located on the 101st floor of the north tower, better known as Tower One. When American Airlines flight 11, a Boeing 767 crashed into Tower One, he was on the 78th floor, changing elevators in the "sky lobby."
When American Airlines flight 11 crashed into Tower One, he was on the 78th floor, changing elevators.
Schonbrun says his late arrival at the Twin Towers was the first of several serendipitous twists of fate, coincidences that he has come to see as miracles which saved his life. All 685 Cantor Fitzgerald employees on the 101st floor that day lost their lives.
Had he arrived on time, as usual, had he been in his office, as usual, he would have been the 686th casualty of Cantor Fitzgerald, the major global financial services firm that lost more employees on 9-11 than any other single business.
Schonbrun, now 56, thinks often about that day – more now, with the anniversary of 9-11 approaching.
"I was plucked out of a burning building and given a second chance," he says, sitting in a café on Manhattan's Upper East Side, near Cantor Fitzgerald's new corporate offices.
He has a new title, director of debt capital markets & asset management at Cantor Fitzgerald, where he has worked for two decades.
On the outside, he looks like he did before 9-11: tall, clean-shaven, casually but neatly dressed, pausing to choose the words before telling the story he has told countless times in the dozen years since the Twin Towers fell. Just one visible difference: his sideburns have turned white. "That happened immediately," he says. Overnight – from the shock of what happened that Tuesday morning.
Inside, Schonbrun is a different man. "I don't see my life the same way, and can no longer live it the same way I once did."
Schonbrun speaks often about what happened on 9-11 and how it changed his life. As an outgrowth of his speeches, he wrote a 9-11 autobiography, Miracles & Fate on 78, which he self-published two years ago.
Down the Stairwell
8:46 a.m. Ari Schonbrun was on the 78th floor when he heard the boom and smelled the smoke. He thought it was a bomb.
In the hall, dark and filled with smoke, he saw a coworker, Virginia DiChiara, an internal auditor, who was badly burned. "Please help me!” she screamed. “I am in so much pain. Please help me and whatever you do, please don't leave me."
"Virginia," Schonbrun said, "I promise I will help you, and I promise I won't leave you. We will get out of here.”
A fire warden directed them to the "stairwell on the left." Schonbrun slowly led DiChiara, who could not be touched because her burns were so painful, down the only staircase that led directly down to the ground floor exit. The other staircases ended earlier, on floors crowded with hundreds of people also looking to escape the flames and smoke.
"You're going to make it," he reassured his colleague. "If you feel faint, Virginia, fall forward, fall on me."
DiChiara kept on walking.
At the 75th floor, Schonbrun heard his cell phone ring. It was his wife. She started crying when her husband answered. Joyce knew that a plane had hit her husband's building. "She did not know if I was still alive," he says.
"I never got reception in my office, even on a regular day," he says. On the morning of 9-11, the call went through from the stairwell. "That was one of the biggest miracles of that day. I turned to shamayim [heaven], and said 'Thank you.'"
A moment later a man in the stairwell asked to borrow the cell phone. "Of course," Schonbrun said.
"Nothing. The signal was now dead."
"At least my wife knew that I was alive," Schonbrun says, "and as strange as it may seem, given what was going on, that gave me great comfort.”
At the 50th floor, DiChiara began to tire. "Virginia, you can do this," he told her. He poured some bottled water into her mouth and over her arms, to give her some relief from the pain.
To boost her spirits, he began counting down the floors they passed. He lied to her: "You look great."
It kept her going.
Finally, they reached the first floor.
A fire warden there told them they would have to walk down a few more flights and exit through the building's garage. Down two flights, out of the darkness, a voice shouted, "You can't get out through the garage." Schonbrun and DiChiara and the others with them trudged back to the first floor and walked out. Anyone in the garage when the building collapsed several minutes later would have died.
Across the street, in front of the Millennium Hotel, Schonbrun helped his colleague into an ambulance. headed for St. Vincent's Hospital. Schonbrun, knowing that DiChiara was in good hands, started to walk away.
"Ari, you're coming with us!" DiChiara insisted.
Thinking that it would probably be a good thing for her psychologically, Schonbrun acquiesced.
"This," he says, "was how I was driven away from my own, otherwise certain, death."
The Towers collapsed minutes later; few at the site survived.
Virginia, who has since recovered, "thanks me every day for saving her life," Schonbrun says. "But I always tell her, 'Virginia, you got it all wrong. Who saved whose life? If you hadn't insisted that I get in that ambulance, I'd be dead.'"
"Against all odds," he says, "I somehow managed to escape without a single scratch. Somebody, obviously, was watching out for me that day."
Mission to Survive
Eventually, he left the hospital, walking north.
On a borrowed phone, he called DiChiara's parents, telling them that their daughter was badly burned but still alive.
Then he reached his wife, who was crying. "Tower One collapsed and I thought you were dead," she said.
The last time they had spoken, Schonbrun was on the 75th floor of his burning building. "When it collapsed and she hadn't heard from me again, she was convinced that I was now dead. She had been trying to figure out how she was going to tell our children that Daddy was killed."
Because of the goodness of strangers and friends, Schonbrun made his way home, by subway and taxi, by early evening. He was greeted at home by 20 people, friends concerned about his fate; on his answering machine, at least 100 messages.
"You have no idea how many friends you really have until they all think you are dead."
"That day I learned something very important," he says. "You have no idea how many friends you really have until they all think you are dead."
He washed up, went to afternoon Mincha services at his synagogue, and recited the HaGomel prayer of thanks that is usually reserved for Torah-reading days.
Early that next morning, a radio reporter called from Israel for an interview.
Within a week, Schonbrun found himself speaking to individuals and audiences about his 9-11 experience. "I didn't think my story was anything special," he says. But everyone else did. You survived for a reason, everyone told him, “You have a mission. What is it?"
He realized his mission: to tell about how he survived, “to describe what God did for me," and how it changed him.
A native of New York City who moved in his teens with his family to Israel. Schonbrun has always been an observant Jew.
For Schonbrun, everything did change after 9-11.
"But despite my daily rituals built around my devotion to God, there were times when I lost sight of what was really important," he writes in his book. "Was I truly aware of what I was doing through of all these practices, or was I just going through the motions most of the time? Did I just do the minimum that was required and find convenient excuses not to attend one more study session or concentrate more on the words of my prayers?"
Everything changed, Schonbrun says, after 9-11.
Just as he can list the miracles that happened to him on 9-11, he can list the changes he has made in his life:
No more cursing. Co-workers who use foul language "don't use foul language around Ari's desk."
No more talking in shul during davening time. Previously, "I talked in shul like everyone else."
No excuses when his kids ask him to come to their school events. Earlier, he'd answer, "Daddy's got to work." Today, he'll take time off for a school play, a school trip – anything involving his children. "Now family is the most important thing in my life."
Less temper. "I don't get upset over small things."
More time for Jewish learning.
And he doesn't miss daily prayers, three times a day, with a minyan.
Formerly, when he prayed, it was to make a living. Now, he prays for his children, "that my children should be good children."
Is he a happier now? "100 percent," he says.
The changes he made more than a decade ago are still part of his life, he says, because they "happened gradually, over time." He didn't try to incorporate any sudden changes overnight.
In his book and speeches, Schonbrun offers some advice. Recognize the "hand of God" in your lives. Give to charity. Do volunteer work. Seek out role models. Be kinder. Don't speak poorly of others. "Take one thing that you are not doing today, that you could do to make yourself better, no matter how basic, and make the conscious decision to do better."
Schonbrun likes to tell the story of a "young and successful executive" who, speeding down an urban street in his new Jaguar, feels a brick smash into the side of his prized automobile. Angered, he backs up, gets out of the car, and grabs the kid who threw the brick.
"What the heck are you doing?" the driver screams.
The kid, crying, answers, "I'm sorry. I didn't know what else to do. I threw the brick because no one else would stop." His brother's wheelchair had rolled off the curb and his brother had fallen out.
"I can't lift him up!" the stone-thrower cries. "Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair?"
The driver helps lift the fallen boy and keeps the dent in the Jaguar's side as a reminder of the incident's message: "Don't go through life so fast that someone has to throw a brick at you to get your attention."
Everyone has a choice, Schonbrun says. You can listen to the whispers of life, its subtle messages. "Or you can wait for the brick."
Now, he passes out a business card that identifies him as a "Motivational Speaker." On a background of a cloud-filled sky are the words: "Listen to the Whispers."
What about the victims, the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives on 9-11? How does he explain his survival while others perished? In other words, wasn't God looking out for them, too?
His answer: “God has a plan, and I can't explain.”
Imagine a small piece of black canvas, Schonbrun says. Beautiful?
Then, he says, imagine it's part of a bigger canvas, a Picasso painting. The small black patch makes sense.
"We only see part of the picture," he says.
"I don't need reminders. 9-11 is with me every single day."
When bad things – or things that seem bad – happen to Schonbrun, he says he understands that they're part of a grand design.
Hurricane Sandy damaged his home last year. If it had happened before 9-11, he says, "I would have asked, 'Why me?'" As he surveyed the damage, he said to himself, "God has a reason. I don't know why. We'll figure it out.”
The 12th anniversary of 9-11 is coming up. On the anniversary, many survivors and their relatives attend commemoration and memorial services.
Schonbrun goes golfing. Alone.
On that day, he doesn't want to talk about his experiences. He doesn't want to think about it nor read the newspaper on that day.
"I don't need reminders," Schonbrun says. "9-11 is with me every single day."
The only physical memento he carries with him, on his keychain, is the key to his office in Tower One.