On September 11, 2001 Sujo John sat at his desk on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. He could hardly believe what the past several months had brought. Having wed Mary in January of 2000, he was still a newlywed and she was four months pregnant with their first child. Just six months before, the two had left their native Calcutta, India with only $50, a couple of suitcases and dreams of a better, more prosperous life in the United States. In that short time in America, the two had landed good jobs. Mary worked nearby—on the 71st floor of the WTC’s South Tower.
As he sat typing an email to a friend from church, Sujo confided that he believed God wanted more for him. Having read the Prayer of Jabez, by Bruce Wilkinson, Sujo wrote, “I’ve been chasing stuff in America. I want to be used of God.” He finished his email and hit “send”. It was 8:05 on a beautiful Tuesday morning, and it was time to start working. About 40 minutes later, Sujo was sending a fax and heard a huge explosion that we now know was American Airlines Flight 11 striking the North Tower between the 94th and 98th floors.
Down on his floor, Sujo watched as the world seemed to crumble around him- a huge hole allowed him to see ten floors up. The building shook violently, walls started to fall apart and jet fuel from the planes caused fires to break out everywhere, making every minute more treacherous for those in the building. Sujo made his way to the stairs along with his co-workers and thousands of other workers in the building. He remembers the people’s faces saying the “fear of death was written on the face of everyone.”
A short time later, he heard another loud crash when United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower around the 81st floor, just ten floors up from where Mary worked. Wondering whether he would get out alive, he was now more worried about what was happening with her. Sujo tried to use his cell phone and those of people escaping down the stairs with him, but he couldn’t get through to her. By the time he made it to the ground level of the tower, an area called The Plaza, the horrors of that day really hit Sujo. Normally, The Plaza was a bustling, lively place, but what Sujo saw was beyond human comprehension. He said, “This place of life, this place of just exuberance where life would be celebrated has now been turned into a place of death, a place of destruction, as I see hundreds of bodies of people that jumped out of those buildings, people who were in those planes.”
As time ticked away and he made his way through the chaos, away from the North Tower towards the South Tower, he felt the ground beneath his feet begin to rumble. Sujo described feeling as if he were being “sucked into a vacuum” as he heard the roar as the upper floors of the South Tower began to crumble. He stopped momentarily and huddled with a group of 15 or 20 people and suddenly became very concerned of what would become of them if they all died without hearing about Jesus.
Until this point in his life, Sujo described himself as a “closet Christian”, keeping his faith to himself and never sharing what he believed about Jesus Christ. Now facing death, Sujo found a boldness he never had and began praying out loud, crying out the name of Jesus. He then realized those people he was with were also joining him in unison as he prayed. He went on from there, stumbling through the dust and debris, covered in soot and wondering what became of Mary.
After the dust settled somewhat, Sujo decided to try to crawl back to the group of people he had prayed with a short time earlier, only to find they had not made it, and had been crushed by the hurricane-force wind and debris cloud caused by the South Tower’s collapse. Downhearted and questioning God as to why He would allow him to survive and not them, Sujo said he felt God’s presence and believed those people were at peace now. After the North Tower followed its twin and imploded, Sujo was shocked and couldn’t believe he was still alive. He found himself out in the street, certain his beloved Mary was gone.
After wandering into a shop, he met a young woman who helped pull bits of glass out of his hair and offered to call someone for him. Just as he handed his phone to her, it began to ring for the first time in many hours. It was about noon by this time, and the clerk handed the phone back to Sujo. The caller ID said it was from Mary’s number, but he was certain it was going to be the worst news…that someone was calling from her phone to let him know she didn’t survive.
He was wrong. When he answered, he heard Mary’s voice. She told him she had wanted to get to work early that day, but ended up running late. When they reunited that night, they made a vow to each other and to God that they would make every day of their lives count. Sujo prayed for God to “rewrite the history of my life”. He knew that he and Mary had not come to America just to make money, pursue success or have financial security. He believed that what was important to God was people…all people.
Fifteen years later, Sujo and Mary live near Dallas with their three children and have started an organization called You Can Free Us. This organization works to abolish the modern-day slavery of human trafficking by rescuing women and children forced into prostitution in the U.S. and around the world. As 21st century abolitionists, Sujo and Mary have made good on their promise to God and have taken their message of survival and hope to people of all ages all over the world.
On another Tuesday morning eleven years ago today, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center cast their final shadows over the neighboring buildings in lower Manhattan. Before noon that day, the shadows would be gone, and so were the towers. The world– and the New York City skyline– had changed forever.
One small, unassuming building that miraculously escaped the effects of the collapse of the towers and the resulting hurricane of debris and humanity was St. Paul’s Chapel. As the oldest continuous-use public building in New York City, it survived the burning of New York in September 1776 when the British re-took the city from the Continental army. Back then, St. Paul’s was saved by a bucket brigade. Flash forward to 2001, and it was saved by a 100-year-old sycamore tree that bore the brunt of the towers’ collapse, shielding the small building as if Divine Providence were saving it for a special purpose.
Within days of the terrorist attacks in 2001, St. Paul’s became a place of refuge for the rescuers. Due to its close proximity to Ground Zero, rescue and recovery workers would make their way to the chapel where they found a hot meal, massage therapists to soothe their aching muscles, and people to pray with them and for them to soothe their aching souls. Some would just come to rest or sleep in the pews after long hours of working in “the pit” that was Ground Zero. One police officer called St. Paul’s an “oasis of heaven in the midst of hell.”
Volunteers from all faiths and walks of life came from around the country to help the helpers. This ministry to the workers at Ground Zero continued for several months until the recovery work officially ended in May 2002.
This wasn’t the first time in its history that St. Paul’s filled an important role as a place for reflection and worship for citizens and leaders following a traumatic time. Another American hero made his way to the doors of the chapel on a day long before 9-11. Before attending a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s in April 1789, President George Washington was inaugurated just a short walk away from the chapel in Federal Hall (on Wall Street). At that time, the nation’s capital was New York City. Having just come through the war for our independence, the young nation and its citizens were in need of direction and an uplifting sentiment from their new leader (much like the days following the attacks). In his inaugural address, Washington stated:
“No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
The same could be said of the little chapel that survived the fall of the Twin Towers. Today, St. Paul’s Chapel remains, as always, a place of worship, but also serves as sort of a mini-museum to where the events of September 11, 2001 can be remembered and reflected upon by all who visit there. Several exhibits memorialize those who perished, and pay tribute to the brave police officers, firemen and other first-responders who put themselves in harm’s way in order to save others.