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Survival story seeks to inspire


Sujo John, a survivor of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, greets Jenkins High School students after telling his story in an assembly Tuesday. Sujo John, a survivor of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, greets Jenkins High School students after telling his story in an assembly Tuesday. 
 (John Craig/John Craig/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Sujo John, a survivor of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, greets Jenkins High School students after telling his story in an assembly Tuesday. Sujo John, a survivor of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, greets Jenkins High School students after telling his story in an assembly Tuesday. (John Craig/John Craig/ / The Spokesman-Review)

CHEWELAH, Wash. – Sept. 11, 2001, was a beautiful day. From the 81st floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, you could see the Statue of Liberty, according to a man who was there.

Sujo John told Jenkins High School students in Chewelah on Tuesday that he relished the view because he had emigrated seven months earlier from Calcutta, India, with $50 in his pocket. With a master’s degree in business administration and good English, he got a marketing job with a broadband communications company called Network Plus.

His wife, Mary, worked as an accountant in the Morgan Stanley investment banking office on the 71st floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center. She was due to arrive at work about 8:45 a.m., when John heard a “tremendous explosion.”

He didn’t realize at the time what had happened, but American Airlines Flight 11 had just crashed into the floors above his office.

“Part of the belly of the plane comes into our floor,” John told his student audience. “We hit the floor with faces flat to the carpet.”

When they got up, they found a crater in the middle of the building that exposed about 10 floors below them. To escape, the office workers had to edge past an elevator shaft from which burning jet fuel was belching.

That was John’s introduction to the terrorist event that changed his life. But John couldn’t tell about the change itself because he was speaking at a public school. He told the rest of his story at Stevens County churches in a three-day tour that ended Tuesday. Other schools he visited included Jenkins Middle School in Chewelah and Colville High School.

In venues where he could tell the full story, John said he saw the hand of God in his survival and in events that kept his wife, four months pregnant with their first child, from harm. He had e-mailed a message to a friend, seeking prayer about the sense of emptiness he felt in his life, earlier on the morning that came to be known as 9-11.

Since then, John has been telling his story around the country as a non-denominational evangelist. To his student audiences, he says only that he thinks he was spared for a reason and they can learn more by visiting his Web site at www.sujojohn.com.

He’s quick, though, to hold up police officers and firefighters as local heroes and to urge students to “make a difference in your community with your lives.” John led Jenkins High students in a round of applause for a small contingent of local emergency workers who attended Tuesday’s assembly.

John said he passed hundreds of police and firefighters on the World Trade Center stairway he and other survivors descended.

“We had no idea that these brave men were literally walking up to their deaths,” John said, noting they were killed when the tower collapsed.

At the time, John said, his cellular phone mostly wasn’t working. He got a message to a cousin and the pastor of his church, but couldn’t reach his wife. He feared she had been killed, and later became convinced of it, John said.

When he reached the ground, John said, he was caught in a shower of falling debris. Suffocating dust turned a black man white, he recalled.

“I came down 81 floors, but death finally caught up to me,” John recalled thinking.

He said he found himself buried in rubble with FBI agent Leonard Hatton, and they helped dig each other out. As they got clear of the building, “this brave FBI agent said, ‘You run ahead. I’ve got to go back and get more people,’ ” John said.

An FBI spokesman said other agents saw Hatton returning to the building, where he was killed. They didn’t see Sujo John, but the agency has no reason to doubt his account, the spokesman said.

Uninjured except for slight cuts, John made his way to a store. He said an employee gave him water and took his cell phone to try to call his wife, but was interrupted when the phone rang. It was John’s wife calling.

She said she had arrived late to work because of traffic, and wasn’t in the building when she saw a second plane crash into the south tower.

“I got the chills a couple of times,” Jenkins High freshman Georgia Goot said after listening to John. “That was horrible. It made me realize how bad it was.”

Goot, like some other students, said she was moved that John worried about his wife while facing death himself.

“He just stuck right through and kept fighting to find his wife and see what happened,” senior Clint Hagen said.

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