Ari Schonbrun experienced first-hand the terror of Sept. 11, 2001, surviving a harrowing escape from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center, and he came away with a conclusion that might be surprising. The sequence of events that led him to survive that day — he would never call them coincidences — reinforced his belief in God and strengthened his faith as an Orthodox Jew.
Schonbrun, 49, an executive at Cantor Fitzgerald brokerage, should have been in his office on the 101st floor at 8:46 that morning, but he was running late because he had stayed at home to finish a book order with his 8-year-old son. Nobody on that floor of the north tower was heard from after the impact of American Airlines Flight 11.
Instead, Schonbrun was changing elevators in the 78th floor sky lobby, where he encountered a horribly burned co-worker, Virginia DiChiara. Schonbrun helped his injured colleague down 78 flights of stairs and out to the street, where she insisted he accompany her in the ambulance to the hospital. Schonbrun is convinced it was another decision that saved his life.
“Otherwise I would have been sitting at the base of the building when the building came down," he said. "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that had I not gotten into the ambulance that day I would be dead."
Schonbrun said 9/11 didn’t change him immediately, but it wasn't long before he found things seemed profoundly different.
“All those things that happened during the course of the day to me just reconfirmed to me that somebody was looking out for me that day," he said recently. "When I look through the events of the day — when you put them all together — I’m sorry, that’s not coincidence.”
Religious faith gains extra meaning
Schonbrun was religious before 9/11, but he became more intense and focused in his devotion as he decided he had been spared for a purpose. As he began responding to speaking requests, he enjoyed the new-found power he had to inspire and change people.
"When you have the ability to change a person ... to me, that is the most magnificent thing in the world," he said. "My message is the same whether you are Jewish or non-Jewish. ... My message is, there is a God. He is looking out for us. We need to understand is he is the supreme being, and he is watching over this world."
And what of the hate that God allowed to blossom that day? What of the nearly 3,000 innocent people who died?
Schonbrun responds that because God is eternal, we cannot understand events of human history from God’s point of view. In essence, he says, we are seeing things out of context.
"I firmly believe that God as a whole has a master plan and (this) is part of that master plan," he said. "I just don’t know why, because I can't see the whole picture. That’s how I rationalize it.”
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Over the past five years Schonbrun also has been part of one of the most amazing business comeback stories of the post-9/11 era, the revival of Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 of its 1,025 employees that day.
“I literally took off Wednesday and then just went back to work and dived into it because I had been working at Cantor for 8 1/2 years — this company was important to me."
Helping rebuild a shattered company
With the company’s headquarters destroyed, Schonbrun commuted from Long Island to New Jersey for nine months, helping to rebuild a brokerage that many thought would not be able to survive. Now a company director, he works in an office in midtown Manhattan, helping to run the company’s debt capital markets operation.
And he and his wife, Joyce, are the delighted parents of a 2-1/2-year old toddler, their fifth child and a “surprise” baby who came years after doctors told them they would be unable to have more children.
And here Schonbrun gets a bit mystical. About 15 years ago his wife was pregnant but ended up losing the baby. And now Schonbrun believes that soul has come back to Earth in the form of his young child.
“I firmly believe that I survived 9/11 because that soul had to come down, that child had to be born," he said.
Schonbrun has changed in other ways as well. He does not curse anymore, for example. And while he still works hard and now also keeps up a busy speaking schedule, he puts much more stock in his family life.
“When I used to go to work, it was the most important part of my life," he said. Whenever his children wanted him to attend a school event, he said, it was, "Daddy's got to work. That was the refrain."
Today he makes time for the school play, the mock trial, the class trip.
"We all love our families," Schonbrun said. "But pre-9/11, it was, 'Bye, hon, I’ll see ya, love ya.' It was kind of that automatic thing.'"
Today, he said, he really thinks about is when he takes his leave in the morning. "I hug and kiss my kids if they’re out of bed," he said. "I’ve changed. It’s a different me."
Martin Wolk is MSNBC.com's business editor.