Rising from the ashes: activist reflects on 9/11, works to spread freedom

ENN and Sailor Mackenzie

By Amanda Hare and Sailor Mackenzie

His experience on Sept. 11, 2001

Sujo John could smell the smoke in the air. He felt the soot and ash all over him. His life was in danger, but that’s not what mattered most to him. He was terrified for his wife and unborn child.

John, a native from northern India, came to America in February of 2001, just six months before the attacks on 9/11. John and his wife both worked in the towers and were there when the planes hit the building. After he survived the attacks, John has taken to giving back to the world. He has founded a company that fights modern slavery and human trafficking and shares his story to others.

“We (John and his wife) got married in January of 2000, so we were newly married, and we were looking forward to what life had in store for us,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘America is a place where dreams and dreamers collide, and it would be amazing to come here and do something with our lives.’”

And so, John found work for a telecommunications company on the 81st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. John’s wife found work as a mutual fund accountant for the mutual fund company, Morgan and Stanley, on the 71st floor of the South Tower.

“I remember leaving home early that morning,” John said. “It’s about 8:46 in the morning when I hear this incredible explosion.”

That “explosion,” was the American Airlines Boeing 767 Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower.

“The plane struck several floors above ours, but part of the wing of the plane tears into our floor,” John said. “What followed was just fire. The jet fuel had spread throughout the building.”

There was fire. There was smoke. John said he believed that he would not get out of the burning building.

“But someone on our floor, he rallies us and said, ‘We’ve got to beat this fire.’ So, we start crawling our ways towards the nearest stairwell,” John said. “In the stairwell, hundreds of thousands of people are joining up in the stairwell.”

As they ran down the stairwell, they hear another explosion. The second plane crashes into the South Tower.

“I’m running down with a very heavy heart because I can’t figure out where my wife is,” John said, “We get to the 43rd or 44th floor, and I see a sight that I will never forget. Hundreds of firemen and policemen making their way up. We are making our way down as these men are making their way up.”

To John, these firemen and policemen were proof that there was a way out of the tower. It took John an hour and 20 minutes to get from the 81st floor to ground level. Immediately, John’s thoughts went to his wife and how to find her.

“I went towards the second tower, the South Tower, to find my wife,” John said. “That’s when the unthinkable happened. The ground shakes. I hear an incredible roar. I feel like I’m being sucked into some kind of vacuum.”

This was when the South Tower imploded and collapsed. The South Tower was the second building to be hit, but the first one to go down.

“I’m near this building. It’s collapsing, and I’m with 15-20 people,” John said. “By then, we had huddled together, and I’m on top of men and women. There are men and women on top of me, and I was just preparing myself for what I thought would be my death. I’m lying there thinking something big was going to hit me soon, and I would die.”

After 15 or 20 minutes, John realized that, against all odds, he was still alive.

“I was plastered, covered in soot and ash, but there was someone trying to pull me, and I began to pull him,” John said. “And as we got close to each other, he says he’s with the FBI. We could barely see each other. There was a cloud of smoke and soot. The air was so thick with all the debris, but he says he’s with the FBI.”

John and the FBI agent held each other. They held hands and said their final prayers. Then, they saw a light.

“A red light, flashing through the soot and the smoke. So, I turn to the man and say ‘that’s the street level. We have to make our way towards the light.’ We start crawling our way towards the flashing light, which is coming from an ambulance. The ambulance was crushed, but the light was spared, and I know that light was spared so that we could find our way to ground zero.”

John and the FBI agent reach ground level, but the agent’s story takes a turn.

“He let go of my hand, and he said ‘I have to go back and get more people.’ He runs back into the North Tower, so driven by the sense of duty and purpose, an incredible American patriot,” John said. “He runs into the North Tower, barely standing. The ground shakes. The building goes down. This brave American died that day.”

The FBI agent was named John P. O’Neill and was the only FBI agent to die in the attacks. O’Neill had previously worked as a special agent and a counter-terrorism expert and later became a head of security at the World Trade Center.

He runs into the North tower, barely standing. The ground shakes, the building goes down. This brave American died that day.”

— Sujo John

His reunion and the aftermath

As both towers have collapsed, John, now out of the debris, has given up hope about his wife. She was four months pregnant, which would have made running down 71 floors of the South tower incredibly difficult for her. But, unbeknownst to John, she was late to work by two minutes that day.

“She gets on the last E train, and she gets off the train and sees people jumping out of the tower, and she’s thinking I’m one of them,” John said. “All these thoughts were running through her mind, thinking the child that she’s carrying would never see his father. But her life was spared, and me and her, we had an amazing reunion later that day.”

All day, cell phones didn’t work, but later that day, John’s phone rang for the very first time. It was his wife.

“It was an amazing moment,” John said. “We told each other where to meet, and in New York City there’s a place called Jacob Javits Center on 46th and 47th. It was an amazing moment, realizing we were both there, and we were both alive.”

John described the aftermath as a warzone filled with hopelessness and fear.

Eagle Nation Online reporter Amanda Hare and Eagle Nation News broadcast journalist Sailor Jane Mackenzie interview 9/11 survivor Sujo John in a Zoom call. “I started appreciating my freedom more,” John said. “I began to realize that life is short. You can plan for the rest of your life, but death can come knocking. You live every day as if it will be your last and plan as if you will live for 100 years. Never leave anything unsaid. Treasure the people in your life.” (Amanda Hare)

“No one really knew what was going on, nobody knew what was about to happen,” John said. “The F-16 fighter jets were flying over New York City and they were giving color to the city. But those of us in the street level, we thought the planes were dropping bombs on all the tall buildings in New York. The fear of the unknown was gripping everybody in ground zero.”

John said that in the days after 9/11, everyone united together.

“America was under attack. America was hurting. America was mourning. There was great unity in the country,” John said. “People came together. Everybody was flying an American flag. Everyone was flying one from their home. It was on every car, and you couldn’t get a flag. The stores ran out. It was an incredible show of support.”

As a resident of New York, John said everybody knew someone who had died.

“Every community had lost people,” John said. “And, as they were finding bodies, there were so many funerals. You would hear the funeral procession, and you knew there was a family hurting and mourning.”

John said it was important for the nation not to give in to fear in the aftermath of the attacks.

“If you gave in to fear, you would give in to what the terrorists wanted to happen,” John said. “It was important that America came back because there was also this realization that America was at war. This was days before the war in Afghanistan started. When I think of the tragedy of 9/11, I always think of the American soldiers that died in the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

After 9/11, John became a motivational speaker. John traveled around the country and shared his story.

“I started meeting families. I started meeting soldiers,” John said. “I would be in airports, and I would see them on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq. I would often travel with this flag, called the ‘Flag of Honor,’ and it was actually an American flag with the names of everybody that died on 9/11, almost 3,000 names on it.”

John would buy hundreds of these “Flags of Honor” and give them to soldiers that he saw as they went to Iraq and Afghanistan. He would meet these soldiers in airports as he flew around the country speaking to millions.

“They (the soldiers) would treasure it. They would take it with them,” John said. “Sadly, I would meet a lot of family members across the country who lost their loved ones whether on 9/11 or those who died in Afghanistan or Iraq. It would be very somber.”

John said that America could not have come back after 9/11 if the nation hadn’t come together as it did.

“Looking back 19 years ago, it did not matter whether you were Republican or Democrat,” John said. “Your background didn’t matter. Everyone stayed true to the calling that everyone was an American. It doesn’t matter what political party you are. You can agree on a few things. And, that love for America brought everyone together. It was incredible to see everyone rally for each other.”

After his experience on 9/11, John looked at the world in a different way.

“I started appreciating my freedom more,” John said. “I began to realize that life is short. You can plan for the rest of your life, but death can come knocking. You live every day as if it will be your last and plan as if you will live for 100 years. Never leave anything unsaid. Treasure the people in your life.”

I started appreciating my freedom more. I began to realize that life is short. You can plan for the rest of your life, but death can come knocking.”

— Sujo John

His gift back to the world

John now travels as a motivational speaker and founded an organization called “You Can Free Us.”

“As I share my story, my goal is for people who are going through their stories, through their storms of life, to realize that we can all make it,” John said. “We should keep moving on. We have to push ourselves and get up and keep going. I’ve met so many people who have connected with my story and come up and tell me, ‘now I have found a purpose.’ I’m very blessed that God has used my story to bring hope to people.”

Audio/video production teacher and Eagle Nation News adviser Michael Hatch met John after he came to speak at one of the churches where Hatch’s wife worked as a pastor.

“Sujo’s story is extraordinary,” Hatch said. “Sometimes you’ll hear people say ‘it was a God thing.’ If this isn’t an example of that, I don’t know what is. Just thinking of it gives me chills.”

Hatch and his wife married less than a month after 9/11. They touched down at the Logan Airport in Boston and pulled into one of the gates the terrorists took off from on 9/11. Hatch described that experience as eerie and heartbreaking.

“There’s an old saying, ‘Learn history so it doesn’t repeat itself.’ The events of 9/11 should never be repeated,” Hatch said. “It was a nightmare. People who experience it, in any fashion, have stories to tell. Those stories should live on forever.”

Junior Sailor Jane Mackenzie works as a broadcast journalist for Eagle Nation News and interviewed John to create a broadcast package sharing his experience. Mackenzie found John’s story inspiring and said she learned so much about 9/11 from it that she never knew before.

“I believe 9/11 is important for younger generations to learn about because as a generation that never lived through 9/11, it’s sort of hard for us to grasp a complete understanding of it,” Mackenzie said. “A lot of times, kids happen to be insensitive to the matter because they just don’t know how to feel about an event that goes so far in depth as much as this one. We can take away from 9/11, we can learn from 9/11. It’s what we do with this knowledge that makes it important to pass on to future generations. The acknowledgement of 9/11 and the lives lost on that terrible day in 2001 will always be important, and that is something no one should ever go without knowing.”

In speaking around the world, John hopes to inspire others and share his faith. This year, John will be in New York City on Friday, Sept. 11, sharing his story and experience.

“I use my story as a platform to talk about my faith in Jesus, which is very important to me,” John said. “Over the last several years, I have been fighting for the freedom of women and children who are caught up in the horror of modern slavery and human trafficking.”

John founded an organization called “You Can Free Us,” which has chapters all over the world. The organization works to rescue women and children and keep them in safe houses, rehabilitate them, and help them reenter society.

“A lot of my time continues to be traveling, speaking up on this cause of modern slavery,” John said. “We have a curriculum project that we’ve done educating young people on the risks of human trafficking. It talks about how goods and services we buy and consume may be tainted by slavery and how it’s important to be ethical consumers.”

“You Can Free Us” has rescued hundreds of women and children around the world, and John said he is glad to have been able to do good and help others around the world.

“A changed life is worth it all, and that’s what drives us,” John said. “The need is so great. There’s 40.3 million people in slavery right now, more people in slavery than the height of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.”

The organization can be found at youcanfreeus.org and @youcanfreeus on social media.

“I would encourage students to go on our website and look at our website and curriculum, called the ‘Libertas,’” John said. “We took four years to develop this curriculum, and it’s all about protecting children across the world.”

The “Libertas” comes in an eBook format and a Kindle format that can be downloaded from the website for $25. According to John, “You Can Free Us” representatives presented programs to school districts across America but had to stop due to COVID-19.  The “Libertas” curriculum has been taught all over Europe and the rest of the world.

“There are concepts in the book that will show you how traffickers and predators lure in children,” John said. “It is very important to be aware how you handle technology and how you interact with people. There is a lot of evil out there, and trafficking has become a big problem, not just in different parts of the world, but it’s become a big problem here in America.”

John said that as he became a motivational speaker, he fell in love with America.

“I’ve traveled to every state and every city across this country, and I’ve had the joy of speaking to millions of people and see what this country has been built on,” John said. “America is not a perfect country because America is made of the people, and nobody is perfect. But, there is no nation like this country.”

This story was originally published on Eagle Nation Online on September 11, 2020.