(Photo: Stanley Tongai)
As Americans everywhere prepare for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, two survivors live to testify not to the brutality but the grace extended to them on that frightful day.
Sujo John and Brian Birdwell, though personally unconnected in their lives, share one similarity – September 11.
While John worked in the North Tower of the Twin Towers, Birdwell was employed at the Pentagon when the multiple suicide attacks occurred ten years ago, leaving one critically injured.
Both men, who are reminded daily of their life-changing experience, share another similarity: their remarkable faith in Christ, which to this day continues to grow.
In videos released on I am Second, a website featuring authentic stories meant to inspire people to live for God and for others, John and Birdwell tell their own story of personal struggle, transformation, and hope in honor of the 9/11 anniversary.
Sujo John: “Buried but not lost at Ground Zero”
John’s journey started in the city of Calcutta, India. It was there that he received his bachelor’s degree in Commerce and an MBA in Business. He also met the love of his life in India, whom he wed in 2000.
Chasing the American dream, John and his new spouse Mary moved to the United States seeking prosperity and adventure, with only $50 in his wallet early 2001.
Within just a few weeks, both found jobs in New York, Mary working on the 71st floor of the South Tower and him, on the 81st floor of the North Tower.
During the month of the attacks, his wife was already four months pregnant with their first child. “Everything was going so well for us,” John reminisced on the site.
With success at his fingertips, however, he also began thinking about his purpose after reading The Prayer of Jabez.
“That book really got me to thinking, and I started asking questions – ‘God, what is your purpose in having me move to America? Is it all about the success and fame that I can find in this country? Or is there something more?’”
Then on September 11, 2001, John’s purpose was made evident.
“It [was the] most beautiful, clear day on the east coast ... I sent out an email to someone that goes to my church saying, ‘Something is happening to me this morning. I know there is a call of God on my life. I have just been chasing stuff in America, but I want to be used by God,’” John wrote.
Moments later, he heard an incredible explosion as the first plane hit the North Tower. While the walls shook and jet fuel from the plane ignited a fire all around him and thousands of other employees, everyone began to run for the stairs.
Then he heard another explosion, as the second plane crashed into the South Tower, where his pregnant wife worked. No calls could be made to his wife because cell phones were not functioning properly.
When he finally reached the plaza, huddling together with 15-20 other people, all he could think was, “These people that are with you, where are they going without Jesus?”
Though he called himself a “closet Christian” up until that time, John, facing death, had a surge of boldness to speak up for Jesus.
“I started crying out to Jesus, and I asked those 15-20 people to call upon the name of the Lord. The most incredible thing happened. Not one tried to argue with me or debate with me. But as I started calling upon the name of the Lord, they followed in unison and I could hear these people cry, ‘Jesus,’ with me for a few minutes.”
Twenty minutes later, everyone around him had been crushed or smashed by the rubble. He was the only survivor.
“I said, ‘God, they just called upon your name, and how come did they not make it?’ And I felt God saying, ‘Sujo, they made their peace with me in their dying moments and they are resting with me in my presence.’”
As rescue workers soon led him out of the debris, he could not help but ask God why he spared his own life. Believing that his wife was dead already, John soon received a call on his cell phone with his wife’s caller ID on it.
Though he assumed that it was someone calling to tell him the news of his wife, he answered, only to hear the reassuring voice of Mary on the other line – she was running late for work that morning.
After being reunited with the love of his life, John prayed that night, “God, I am done chasing things that have been on my heart. I have been chasing success, fame, financial security, but from now on I want to be chasing that which is in your heart.”
“I’m convinced that all that is in your heart is people. People from all over the world, many of them have never heard your name even once. So God, I want to be a proclaimer of the good news of Jesus Christ. I want to redeem my time. So God, here is a surrendered life, would you rewrite the story of my life?”
From that day forth, John following his convictions, launched Sujo John Ministries, an international evangelistic ministry dedicated to spreading the Gospel message of grace, which he so vividly experienced himself.
Speaking to thousands all around the world, John, now armed with a new purpose built on God’s dream and not his own American dream, continues to powerfully serve God and evangelize to those who have yet to see their own purpose in life.
He currently lives in Lantana, Texas, with his wife and their two children, Jeremy and Sophia.
Brian Birdwell: “Burned but not broken in the Pentagon attack”
At the time of the Pentagon attack, Brian Birdwell worked as a military aide to the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management.
When the American Airlines Flight 77 crashed near his office, Birdwell was in the men’s restroom taking “care of [his] business.”
“I was about seven or eight steps out when flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon ... I was thrown around, tossed around like a rag doll inside. I was set ablaze, breathing in black putrid smoke, inhaling aerosolized jet fuel, with the temperature of the air somewhere between 300-350 degrees,” he detailed on the site.
Flesh hung off his arms, his hair was gone, and his eyes began to swell closed, as he stumbled his way through a once familiar hallway, knowing he was about to die.
“I did what we in the military are never trained to do, which is surrender,” stated Birdwell, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. “I screamed out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, I am coming to see you.’ Yet that didn’t come, and I lay there thinking all right Lord, let’s get on with this thing. But the Lord had other purposes.”
Using the wall he had been blown up against, Birdwell struggled to get up and managed to stagger down the hallway, where his four co-workers found him and began to assist him.
But when they tried to pick him up, they each had unknowingly pulled chunks of his flesh off his limbs, causing more excruciating pain to his already critically burned body. Soon, Birdwell was escorted to the Georgetown hospital where doctors immediately began treatment, with a grim prognosis.
Asking for the hospital chaplain to say a final prayer, Birdwell prayed together, “Okay Lord, You are in charge here. If you guide Dr. William’s hand and the team here at the Georgetown Emergency Room and I survive here, we will salute that flag and move out with that mission; but if You’ve brought me here, and Your decision is to bring me into eternity silently and quietly under the care and compassion of my fellow Americans, we will salute that flag too.”
“It was with the strength, not of a soldier, but of my faith in Christ that I could look at Dr. Williams when that prayer was over with and very laboriously tell him lets’ go on with it, resting in the comfort of the commander and chief of life,” Birdwell affirmed.
His wife, Me,l and son Matthew prepared to say goodbye to their beloved husband and father as well. Birdwell noted that in his 20-plus years of military service the hardest thing he had ever been asked to do was say goodbye to his son.
“I remember watching Matt come in ... as I was wrapped like a mummy, with a tube in every orifice in my body. I can’t speak because of the tracheotomy and the feeding tubes and other things; but I can see him walk in and just mouth ‘I love you dad,’ and I could sit there and mouth back to him how much I loved him; and because of that opportunity I had to say goodbye to my son, in that moment I was having my ‘it is finished moment.’”
But more difficult than the goodbye with his son, Birdwell couldn’t imagine how much more painful it was for God the Father to say goodbye to His only Son, Jesus Christ.
“In my death, I would be separated from my son, but joined to my heavenly father, whereas Christ’s death separated Him from the perfection of Heaven and the relationship He had with the Father.”
God spared Birdwell’s life that day, however, and he was able to tell his story to thousands of others after enduring a long road of treatments for his third-degree burns to more than half his body.
He currently serves as the newest member of the Texas Senate and is also the founder of his own ministry with his wife called “Face the Fire,” which serves to glorify Jesus by helping burn survivors, wounded servicemen and women, and their families.
Reflecting on 9/11, Birdwell cannot say with a certainty that all is forgiven and that he’s moved on.
“But I can tell you that Mel and I accentuate the positive of not only having our lives to remain together and watch Matthew grow up, but also having grandkids somewhere in the future and continue to live in this great nation.”
“We don’t think about the difficulty that five particular terrorists put us through, and concentrating on the negative of the terrorists’ actions; but we concentrate on the grace of the Lord’s actions.”
He concluded, “I got a purple heart for stepping out of a men’s restroom; and many of our men and women in uniform today earn their purple heart today by stepping out of this great nation into foreign danger zones. Christ earned his purple heart by stepping out of the perfection of heaven. And that’s exactly why the term ‘I am Second and He is first’ is so appropriate.”
Glory goes to God
Inspired by the two men’s stories, many shared how encouraged they were and how God was being glorified through these men and other survivors as well.
“I have just realized that my life is not my own and I must live every second to love others as God loves them,” Celia Mahone commented.
“This man [John] shares his amazing testimony and all I can think about is how greater our God is that those terrorists who united this great nation. Because of this one survivor and his anointing from God, he has led thousands to Christ... God is Greater!” wrote Kim Nealey.
Carol Waddell also added, “Words cannot express how proud I am to know this man [Birdwell] and have him represent me in the Texas legislature!”
Watch Sujo John’s and Brian Birdwell’s testimony on I am Second here.