Ari Schonbrun knows his life was probably saved by his wife. A Scholastic book order and a colleague’s stubbornness also were major factors.
The 65-year-old Long Island resident worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. On the morning of September 11, 2001, as he was leaving his house, his wife told him he had to first speak with his son, Baruch, who was eight, about what books he would pick. It took 20 minutes to whittle the list to two books from a series ironically called “Survivor.”
Schonbrun was on the 78th floor of Tower One, about to get a connecting elevator to take him to the 101st floor at 8:46 a.m. On any other day he would have already been at his desk. He would not enter the elevator but instead was thrown off his feet when about American Airlines Flight 11, scheduled to go from Boston to Los Angeles, stuck the Noth Tower after it had been hijacked by a group of terrorists led by Mohamed Atta.
Schonbrun would remain unscathed, and he assisted in helping a co-worker, named Virginia, whose arms were burned, down to make it out of the North Tower, pouring water into her mouth so she could drink as her hands could not even hold a cup of water. Once he got her in an ambulance, he was going to head back and see if he could help others, but she said the ambulance couldn’t leave unless he came with them. He reluctantly agreed. Both were taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was stunned to later find out both towers collapsed and had Virginia not insisted he ride to the hospital, he likely would have been killed by falling debris.
His colleague survived, but 658 of his co-workers at Cantor Fitzgerald were killed. While some might lose faith, Schonbrun said his Emunah has become stronger.
“At the end of the day Hashem saved my life,” Schonbrun told The Jewish Press. “But what did he use as a shialich?” Shaliach is the Hebrew word for “messenger.”
“My son’s book order, my wife who wouldn’t let me leave the house until I finished with him, the co-worker who I saved but then she saved me.” he said. “You put them together and you see the Yad Hashem (hand of God) and I was plucked out of a burning building that collapsed and given a second chance.”
Schonbrun, the author of the extraordinary book “Miracles &Fate on 78” would go on to be a podcaster and a speaker, telling his inspiring story to students at schools around the globe.
He said there were students who heard the absurd anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews were told to stay home on 9/11 and his story obviously debunked it.
In his book, he writes that prior to working at Cantor, when he was looking to land a big job, his brother-in-law posed the proposition of not wearing a yarmulke to interviews.
“I had always worn my yarmulke and had never taken it off for any reason,” he wrote. “So my retort was simple. ‘If they’re not going to hire me because I am an Orthodox Jew who wears a yarmulke, then that is not a place I want to work.’ I was not going to deny who I was simply to get a job. It went against my nature…”
Of course, he was hired.
He said the traumatic images of the day did bother him but telling the the story and inspiring others helped him.
“I did have nightmares, especially of the two firefighters I saw going up the stairs and other things I saw that day,” he said. “But what really helped me get through it, besides my family of course, was that I started to tell my story. That was very cathartic for me. I didn’t need therapy. I found that writing my book and telling my story to so many others was extremely therapeutic. I’ve told my story in many different countries.”
Though one would not expect any humor in the story, there is one small dose of it. Wanting to tell his wife he was alive, as well as his parents who lived in Israel, cell service was nearly impossible, and the lines were long for pay phones. Entering a restaurant, people were using the phone, but a random man, named John Roccosalva got up mid-meal and offered to take him to his nearby apartment to use the phone. He wondered if this man was an ax murderer and a woman who also needed a phone, refused the same offer, likely fearing the same thing.
Roccosalva turned out to simply by a kind person and let dozens of people use the phone in his small apartment that had no radio or TV. He reached his wife then and later on would reach his parents.
Schonbrun said he is also often asked if he’s seen the film “United 93” about the fourth hijacked plane, which crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, or other 9/11 films.
“I tell them I don’t need to see it because I see what took place in real life on that day,” he said.
He did decide to visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum before it opened to the public.
“As much as I went through it, I wanted to see what they did and I was very impressed with the museum,” he said. “They did an excellent job.”
He said while almost all museums have a gift shop by the exit it was a good move not to put the gift shop there in this instance, which he says was more respectful.
Osama Bin Laden issued a public fatwa, or religious edict against America in 1998, in a rare interview with John Miller, who was then a journalist for ABC. In an infuriating video seen 18 years ago, Bin Laden claimed responsibility for the attacks of 9/11. Many wondered how it was that years after the attack, and despite a war, he hadn’t been found. The man who sent 19 hijackers, who ultimately murdered nearly 3,000 people, was found and killed in a compound in Abbottabad Pakistan on May 2, 2011.
How did Schonbrun feel on that night, more than a decade ago?
“Too little, too late,” he said, adding that he was “happy they got him, but it was anticlimactic.”
After his incredible survival on 9/11, what was Schonbrun’s reaction to the pandemic which hit America in March of 2020?
“My mindset was that we would get through it,” he said, adding that it is tragic for all who have died.
Schonbrun said he encourages Jews to follow Torah and mitzvot and encourages all people to be honest and good citizens. He prays at Bais Medrash of Cedarhurst.
Asked if another major attack could take place in America, Schonbrun, said he obviously hopes it would not, but thinks people should not kid themselves.
“100 Percent I think it could happen again,” he said “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. If people think they’re not plotting every single day, they’re out of their minds.”