NEW YORK CITY (Christian Examiner) – When Sujo John went to work on the 81st floor of Tower 1 that Tuesday, he could never have imagined his life would be spared from an inconceivable tragedy—and that telling his story would take him into international ministry.
He and his wife Mary, pregnant at the time, had lived in New York less than a year when terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centers.
"When we looked back toward the towers," John said, "we saw only a pile of smoking ash and rubble. God, in his mercy, had spared our lives."
To this day, John doesn't know why he and Mary lived when others died, but he knows he is called to share the gospel because this life is fragile but eternity is real.
ESCAPE FROM THE BUILDING
At first, people in John's office thought it was an explosion. The building shook, and there was fire, he says in a video on his ministry website.
"We could see a huge crater below and above—a picture of twisted steel all around us, with smoke and fire spreading fast," John said. He and his coworkers were afraid.
They ran through the flames and down the stairwell. John paused to try to call his wife, who worked in Tower 2, but there was no cellphone service and he was unable to reach her.
On his way downstairs, John saw firemen and first responders running upward. "Seeing them gave us hope that we'd get out of the burning building. We did not realize that these brave men climbed toward their death."
Confronted for the first time by his own mortality, John cried out to God at the "picture of complete destruction and death." He escaped the building and ran toward the South Tower where he hoped Mary would be but did not make it very far away before the tower began to collapse.
John and a group of about 15 other people huddled near the building as the tower crumbled around them.
"I started praying in Jesus' name, asking God to give me His strength," John recalled.
Even though he expected to die, he wanted to share his confidence in heaven with others.
The thought of heaven gave me peace as I looked into the face of death. But I felt challenged to tell those around me that we were going to die. I also urged them, if anyone did not know Christ, to call upon His name. Facing death, people were very ready to accept Jesus. Everyone around me cried out, "Jesus!" This was incredible—so much power in His name.
When pieces of the building finally stopped raining down around him, he realized the other people were dead. He believes with confidence he will see them in heaven because they made peace with Jesus.
Choking on soot, smoke, and ash, John staggered away until he found another living person who was wearing an FBI jacket and had a flashlight. The first thing he asked him was, "Do you know Jesus?"
The two men, praying, walked until they could see emergency lights. The FBI agent returned to Ground Zero to rescue more people and probably died when the other tower collapsed.
Unlike her husband, Mary John did not make it as far as the World Trade Center buildings themselves. She was finish her commute when the crash occurred.
She tried vainly to reach her husband on his cellphone and watched helplessly while people leapt from the building, the second plane hit, and both buildings went down.
"I felt the heat and the debris falling all around me," she said. She retreated from the wave of concrete ash and powdered glass.
All morning, Mary prayed for her husband's safety.
One of my prayers was, "Lord if you help him out of that building, by some chance he's able to make it out, then I'm ready to give up everything we have right now, our jobs, whatever else we have."
Mary and Sujo were reunited when finally one of her calls to his phone went through. He answered it fearing it was a stranger using her phone to tell him of her death.
"As we saw one another, a wonderful sense of relief flowed through us—almost more than I could bear," John remembered. "We had been so close to believing we'd never see each other again."
PEOPLE ARE READY FOR GOD
One of the main spiritual lessons John learned from his survival is people are ready for God.
No one argued, debated, or resisted when he urged them to call on Christ in the moments when they all believed they were about to die.
In a fulfillment of Mary's prayer, the Johns felt called to ministry because of their experience. Their goal is to prepare people for eternity.
Now more than a decade later, John views that experience as the one that gave him confidence in his salvation.
"Ground Zero for me is not just New York City where the tragedy happened," he said. "Ground Zero for me is now my community, my city, the city where I was born."
John travels internationally to speak about his miraculous survival and the need for global evangelism.
"The Bible warns that 'it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment' (Hebrews 9:27)," John said. "We want to challenge the world with the question: 'Do you know where you are going?'"