Jewish World Review Sept. 11, 2002 / 5 Tishrei, 5763

Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum
and Judith Leventhal

Members of the Orthodox Jewish Hatzolah Volunteer
Ambulance Corps at Ground Zero, minutes
after the terrorists struck

When the life you save ... is your own | Ordinarily, Ari Schonbrun would already have been in his office on the 101st floor of the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, but he stayed home an extra ten minutes to help his son with his homework. So he was on the 78th floor instead, on his way to a bank of elevators that would take him up to the 101st, when he heard a tremendous explosion and the electricity went out. Acting quickly, he found the floor's fire warden and convinced him to evacuate. The closest emergency stairwell was filled with smoke, causing him and about fifteen others to grope around in the darkness until they found an alternate exit. Gingerly, they began to make their way down.

As they made their descent, Ari stumbled into a coworker named Virginia, who had sustained serious burn injuries in the blast.

"Ari, please don't leave me!" she begged. Faithfully, he stayed at her side and helped her labor down the stairs.

"I can't make it," she stopped. "I can't go on."

Ari knew that her slow-moving progress could mean the difference between life and death, but he couldn't leave her.

"Virginia," he cheered her on, "I know you're in terrible pain, but you're doing great! You have got to force yourself to continue on. I'm here, I'm with you."

"Ari, don't leave me," she cried again.

"I won't, Virginia . . . I promise I won't."

"Make way," he shouted to the crowds as they clambered down the steps, "someone is hurt here!" Though frantic and panic-stricken, the crowds obligingly parted, and finally, Ari and Virginia reached the bottom of the stairs.

Outside, as they gasped for air, Ari saw the first ambulances arrive at the scene.

Virginia's injuries were serious enough to warrant immediate medical attention. As the EMT's prepared to place her in the ambulance, Ari-his mission completed-moved to an area near the burning building and stared transfixed at the horror unfurling. But as the ambulance started to pull away, Virginia's frantic voice summoned him back: "Please, Ari, please don't leave me. I'm so scared. Please come with me to the hospital."

How could he refuse? Ari ran back to the ambulance-the first ambulance to leave the World Trade Center-and jumped in. As the ambulance pulled away, the second plane hit. Ari turned back to glance at the spot he had just vacated. It didn't exist anymore.

Twisted steel and shards of glass had rained down on the exact place where he had stood just moments before.

"See, Virginia," he later said. "First, I saved your life. Then you returned the favor and saved mine."

Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum and Judith Leventhal are authors of the "Small Miracles" series, including Small Miracles for the Jewish Heart, from where this story was excerpted. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2002 Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum and Judith Leventhal. Used with permission of Adams Media Corporation