The morning dawned bright and clear on September 11, 2001, as though cruelly concealing the unfathomable horror that unfolded several hours later which darkened not only the skies of lower Manhattan, but also countless lives across the U.S. and the world.
The 13-year-old memories of the 9/11 terror attacks are still vivid in the minds of all of us, but especially among those who experienced the inferno and were fortunate enough to escape. They and their stories serve as crucial reminders that even amid unspeakable evil and tragedy, as hijacked jetliners slam into teeming skyscrapers, Gd’s hand is unmistakably present. We may never be able to make sense of the catastrophic lossof life and widespread destruction, but we can, and must, draw strength and inspiration from the remarkable stories of survival which testify that even in tragedy, “the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers
Saved by a New Fruit – and a Security Guard
Sammy Cohen, a tax department manager on the 86thand
87thfloor of the second World Trade Center tower, exited the A train
en route to his office, checking his watch and thinking of his
9am meeting and of the promise he’d made that morning to his wife, Rachel. If he got to work early, he’d told her, he’d stop by the farmer’s market set up every Tuesday outside the World Trade Center buildings. Rosh Hashanah was fast approaching, and Rachel wanted a new fruit for the holiday.
Sure enough, Sammy arrived early. It was 8:40. There were still 20 minutes before his meeting, enough time for a quick stop to the farmer’s market before going up to his office. It was a decision that would change his life – and save it.
Sammy walked through the train station and across the World Trade Center concourse with quick, purposeful steps. At precisely 8:45 – normally a time when he would be at his desk – he placed his hand on the revolving door that would take him back out to the farmer’s market. Just then, he heard a tremendous explosion.
Startled, and thinking it was gas-related, he craned his head and saw the canopies of the farmer’s market blazing. People were abandoning their produce and running for their lives. Unsure what was happening, Sammy ventured towards his building, stepping inside 2 World Trade Center. Standing at the elevator, he was about to swipe his ID card through the turnstile to gain entrance, until a security guard stopped him – and thus saved his life.
“If it’san emergency – if you have something pressing to do – you can go up,” the guard said. “But if you don’t absolutely have to, wait on Liberty Street until we know what’s going on.”
Now Sammy didhave something pressing to do – he had a meeting! – but he wisely followed his instincts and decided not to get on that elevator and to wait outside instead.
“Tower 2 got hit from floors 76 to 85,” Sammy relates. “Without question, if I had gotten in that elevator, I wouldn’t be alive.”
The area outside looked like a war zone. Debris, papers, detritus… Sammy will never forget the sight of what he encountered as he walked among the ruins. Already foreseeing the sort of disaster this would be, he went into the Mariott Financial Center to use the phone. His firstthought was of his wife, a nursery teacher in Magen David Yeshivah. He needed to get a message to her and let her know that he was okay. He also though of his secretary and staff, who needed to be called and told to immediately evacuate. All this was whirling through his mind as he was informed that a plane had hit 1 World Trade Center. Not a gas explosion – but a commercial jet filled with passengers and crew members.
“I Was Ready to Die”
Reeling with shock, Sammy got through to the secretary at Magen David, Mindy Swid. “Please give this message to Rachel Cohen,” he said. “Tell her that her husband is okay. She won’t understand this message when she gets in, but just tell her, please.”
In Sammy’s building, 2 World Trade Center, his employees were making similar phone calls. The second plane would not hit until 9:03, at which point many employees, who’d only minutes ago informed their loved ones of their safety, would be dead. Sammy, who should have been at his 9:00 meeting, was still in the MariottCenter when the second plane hit.
Panicked, the Mariott staff ordered everyone to immediately evacuate the hotel. Sammy turned on West Street and walked towards Brooklyn Battery Park. “I saw hundreds of pieces of flesh, shoes, teddy bears,” Sammy remembers, “everything that was on the plane. I got to Battery Park, turned my head and saw the two buildings burning. I didn’t see the plane hit my building, but I saw it coming down. Within 30 seconds, 110 stories came to rubble. “
Though he’d been blessed so far, Sammy wasn’t out of danger yet. Just being in the surrounding area was life-threatening. “There was so much ash,” Sammy says, still visibly astonished by the sight. “I was wearing a black suit and within seconds my whole suit was covered with it. After the ash came thick black smoke.”
Sammy turned to a coworker standing beside him and said, “We escaped the towers, but I don’t think we’re going to escape the smoke. I don’t know what religion you are, but you should pray.” Sammy did what Jews have done since time immemorial just before their deaths: he began reciting, “Shema Yisrael…”
“I was ready to die within a few minutes,” he recalls.
“Gd Loves You”
But Sammy wouldn’t die that day. Hashem was there protecting him all throughout the horror. He spotted a still-standing canopy and took shelter from the ash. Then, with one turn of his head, he caught sight of the Staten Island ferry, which was about to leave. It would bethe last vehicle to leave Manhattan. “As long as I can fit people, I will take them,” the captain shouted. Sammy hesitated, fearing the ferry would sink. “As many as I can!” the captain bellowed. “Get on!”
Quickly, Sammy evaluated his options. “If I stayin Lower Manhattan I will die now,” he thought, “but if I go on the ferry, I will extend my life, by at least 20 minutes.” The decision was easy.
“I wanted to stay alive,” he says simply. “I was in survival mode.” The ferry might not stay afloat for very long, but as long as he was on it, he’d be out on the water, experiencing beauty. He’d be doing what he could to save his life.
With Gd’s help, the boat did not sink, but landed safely ashore. Sammy was taken to Staten Island, where he stayed with Morah Leslie Fuchs, another Magen David teacher, until 9pm, when his family could come and get him. Sammy’s wife, daughter and brother ran to his side, overcome by joy that he was alive.
“What a miracle!” Sammy reflects, astounded. “Everything: getting thenew fruit on that Tuesday six days before Rosh Hashanah, being at the elevator and deciding not to go up to the 86th floor, going to the Mariott Hotel to use the phone, walking to Battery Park, getting on that ferry. The decisions that were put into my head… Hashem had to have been planting them there.”
Sammy’s rabbi, Rabbi Haim Benoliel of B’nei Yosef, explained it all in three simple words. “G-d loves you,” he said to Sammy. “It wasn’t your time yet.”
Rabbi Ozeri, Sammy’s childhood friend, told his congregation afterwards, “I know this guy. He’s in work every single day at 8:45. He never misses a day – and on this day he went to get the first fruit, to say shehehiyanu– and it saved him.”
“It’s All a Miracle”
Thinking of that fruit, the instrument of his rescue, Sammy tears up. In a voice clogged with emotion, he remembers his employees –
220 men and women reporting to him, 80 of whom were in the building at the time. Though 41 of them got out safely, 39 of them tragically died. Many employees stayed at their desks between the first explosion and the second, thinking that their building was safe. From 19 of those 39 people, DNA was never found. Those were the employees stuck in the elevator, or waiting for the elevator on the 78th floor – the elevator that Sammy chose not ride; the elevator that Hashem kept him from, but for some reason which we cannot know, allowed 19 of his devoted employees to die on. And thus Sammy’s relief and sense of good fortune was accompanied by deep feelings of grief over the precious lives that were lost on that fateful Tuesday morning.
Even now, 13 years later, Sammy has not yet healed. The images from that day are forever etched in his memory. “Seeing everything that I saw – the flesh, the debris, the burning, the ash, the black smoke, the towers coming down – I try not to think of it, but when I do it’s very vivid.” For the first five years after 9/11, Sammy had nightmares. He saw himself in the building, sitting at his desk, falling. And when he talks about it, the years evaporate, as if it had happened yesterday.
“The emunah[faith] and the bitahon[trust] I have now is unbelievable,” Sammy says about the transformative effect of this harrowing experience. “I pray with much more kavanah[concentration] now. Everymorning I wake up and say Modei Ani and I’m so grateful for being alive, because I know my life could’ve been snatched from me in one second. I don’t take anything for granted. To look at the sky, to smell the flowers, it’s all a miracle.”