April 6, 2007

Sept.11 Survivor Reflects on Tragedy

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Sujo John was working on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on Sept. 11, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the building just a few floors above him. Last night at an event hosted by the Johnson Christian Fellowship, John related his incredible survival story to a group of Cornell students in Sage Hall.

“I heard a tremendous explosion, and for a moment I thought my eardrums would burst,” John said.

Despite the fire that broke out on the floor and a crater in the ceiling that offered a view of melted steel and flames for 10 floors up, John said he and his coworkers remained calm. They made their way past useless elevators emitting balls of fire, and began to descend the 81 flights of stairs to safety, a process that took over an hour.

“There were hundreds of thousands of people joining us on those stairs, and the first thing I did was look at my watch and think, ‘God, every morning my pregnant wife goes to work in that tower next to us at 9 a.m.,’” John said.

His wife, Mary, was four months pregnant at the time. At the 53rd floor, John stopped to make frantic phone calls on a ground line, trying in vain to warn his wife not to come to work.

As soon as he reached ground level, John immediately crossed the Plaza to the South Tower in an attempt to find his wife—he neared the South Tower just as the second plane hit. Covered in ash, soot and glass, John waited for the piece of debris that he was sure would end his life. He huddled together in a heap with strangers, praying and crying.

“When death stares you in the face, it will not matter what life you’ve lived.” John told the fifty students gathered in the small lecture hall, “All that mattered was my faith.”

Suffocating in the smoke, John followed the still-flashing light of a wrecked ambulance out onto the street along with an FBI agent who later died. John made his way into a store where a woman from Israel picked glass from his hair and helped him try to get in touch with his wife.

“She told me this kind of thing happened all the time where she was from,” John said.

Three hours after the plane hit, he received a phone call from his wife saying that she had not made it in to work that day—traffic delayed her five minutes too long. Miraculously, both John and his wife had survived.

After the tragedy, John reprioritized his life. He quit his job and became a Christian motivational speaker, launching Sujo John Ministries. He has spoken to churches, high schools and conferences around the world. His story has been featured by the New York Times and the BBC.

He came to Cornell in hopes that his message would make students think about prioritizing faith.

“I almost didn’t really want to hear him talk about what happened… I was in New York at the time and in some ways I just don’t want to remember,” said Tim Van Hooser grad, co-president of the Johnson Christian Fellowship.

Even though John’s testimony is painful, he insists that America must remember the events of 9/11.

Hani Zabaneh grad, helped to organize the event after he met Sujo John through a mutual friend.

“9/11 is something everyone should always remember…it’s important for people to really question what happens after you die, to think,” Zabaneh said.

When John immigrated to the U.S. from India just seven months before the tragedy, he brought with him only $50, two suitcases and his wife.

“I know many of you have dreams. I came to America with just dreams—be aware of change and be open to the changing environment around you.” John said during his closing remarks.

“People are always asking, ‘Why did this happen, why is there evil, why is there suffering?’ My faith has helped me find some answers to these questions.” John said, “Maybe tonight I can help someone re-prioritize their life.”