‘I tell people that to this day it’s one of the biggest miracles that happened to me, other than the fact that I wasn’t killed.’
Ari Schonbrun, Cedarhurst
“That day started like any other. I got to the World Trade Center at about 8:40 a.m. My office at Cantor Fitzgerald was on the 101st floor. You had to take an elevator up to 78, and then you’d take another elevator up to 101. I started walking towards the back elevators that I needed to get to my office.
“I must have been about eight feet from that bank of elevators when there was an explosion. I thought a bomb had gone off in the elevator. The entire building shook, the lights went out, the place filled with smoke, and I was literally thrown off my feet. I was on the ground.
“People were yelling and screaming. I walk to see if I can find a way out, and I bump into a coworker of mine. Her name was Virginia. She was on the elevator that I was about to get on when the plane hit. The walls and ceiling of the elevator collapsed. There was a cable that snapped and was sparking. The jet fuel came down. There was a wall of fire.
“Virginia jumped out and suffered third-degree burns. She sees me and says, ‘Ari, thank God, please help. Please don’t leave me!’ I said to her, ‘Virginia, I promise I will not leave you.’ The irony here is Virginia and I were not good friends. She was an internal auditor, and she didn’t give me very good marks. As a matter of fact, she almost got me fired. And there we were, she and I.
“As an Orthodox Jew, we have mercy on everybody. Our past didn’t matter. She was another human being who was in trouble. I was the guy that God put there. And of course, I said, ‘Come with me. We’re gonna get out of here.’
“We went down the stairwell in a line. I remember that because I said to Virginia, ‘If you have to fall, fall forward on me, and I will catch you and carry you down.’ We got down three flights when suddenly, my phone rings. Meanwhile, there’s no service.
“I tell people that to this day it’s one of the biggest miracles that happened to me, other than the fact that I wasn’t killed. I picked it up, and it was my wife. She was crying, telling me something about planes going into the building. I said to her, ‘I’m on my way down. I’ll call you when I get out of the building.’ I hung up the phone, not realizing, of course, it would be hours until I spoke to her again.”
I thought to myself, you know what, if she sits down, she may never get up. And if she doesn’t get up, she’s gonna die.
“We got down to about the 50th floor. Virginia says, ‘I can’t go on. I can’t do it.’ My first instinct was, I’ll have her sit down and rest. And then I thought to myself, you know what, if she sits down, she may never get up. And if she doesn’t get up, she’s gonna die. That wasn’t on my agenda for the day. I said, ‘No, Virginia, you can do this!’ We had some water, and I gave her a drink. Then I poured it on her arms to give her some relief from the burns.
“Now, I’m turning into a coach. I’m counting down, ‘45th floor, 44th floor — you’re doing great!’ We got down to the first floor and the fire warden who was leading us kept going down. I said, ‘Where are you going?’ He says, we gotta get out through the garage. I turned to Virginia. I said, ‘We already walked down 78 flights of stairs. What’s another four or five?’ We got down two flights when suddenly, the door on the first floor opens and some guy yells out, ‘Where are you people going?’ I said, ‘We’re going out through the garage.’ The guy says, ‘No, you can’t get out through the garage. You gotta come back up here and get out through the first floor.’
“So, I turned to Virginia and said to her, ‘We gotta go back up two flights.’ Now here’s the thing. I later learned there were people in that garage that never got out. Who was that guy? An angel? Who knows? We finally got out of the building. I stopped a cop and said, ‘I have a burn victim here. Where do we go?’ He directed us across the street to a triage center. An ambulance pulled up and they put Virginia in. She turns to the driver and says, ‘We’re not leaving unless Ari comes with us!’ I look at the ambulance driver. He looks at me and says, ‘Fine, hop in the front.’ I get into the front; we pull away. We were one of only a few ambulances that actually got away from the scene that day.
“Let me ask you a question. Who saved whose life? If she wouldn’t have insisted that I get into that ambulance, I would’ve been standing at the base of that building when it collapsed, and I would be dead. But she insisted that I get into that ambulance, and that’s why I’m here. We became very good friends. We stayed in touch to this day.”
Interviewed by Jay Max