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(photo credit: AP)
While many people around the world remember watching the horrors of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on their TV screens, for Aaron Fuerte the events of that day hit closer to home. For the Brooklyn native who worked then on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center's north tower, they were a direct catalyst for his journey to making aliya last year.
Born to an Israeli mother and a Brazilian father, Fuerte, 34, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that he had always thought about moving to Israel but it was watching the Trade Center - where he had worked for the previous two years - crumble before his eyes and crush thousands of people that motivated him to begin the process of building a new life in the Jewish homeland.
Fuerte worked for Marsh & Mclennan, an insurance firm with offices on the 93rd to 100th floors.
"I had been voting in Democratic primaries that morning and arrived to work a little later than usual, around 8:45 a.m.," Fuerte said.
He took an express elevator up to the 78th floor and was planning to take a local elevator to the 93rd floor. He was about to step into the second elevator when hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston slammed into the tower between floors 90 and 100, 12 stories above.
"I got blown back by the blast," said Fuerte. The elevator was sent crashing down 78 floors and he was nearly thrown down the opposite elevator shaft, he said. He heard people screaming inside another elevator and, together with other survivors, attempted to pry open the doors, but to no avail. To this day he does not know what happened to those inside.
Fuerte ran to a nearby emergency exit, but it was locked. He recalls entering the offices of Korean brokerage Hyundai Securities to ask if they knew where there was another emergency exit and being asked to leave. Fuerte's last image of the people there is of them working quietly at their desks.
He managed to find the stairs and started to make his way down the 78 flights.
"The stairs were dark," Fuerte said. "Only two people could move down, side by side. By the 50th floor, there was already quite a large flow of traffic and it was starting to become crowded."
As he reached the 35th floor, at around 9:15 a.m., he began to pass firefighters coming up.
"They were sweating from [carrying] so much equipment and we had to move into single file to let them through," he said.
Fuerte made it to the ground floor in just under an hour. There were FBI agents, police and reporters outside. Fuerte just kept on running.
"I looked up quickly and there was a large ring of fire above me," said Fuerte, who headed for a hospital. "Then I heard a woman scream and saw the south tower collapse."
"It was complete bedlam, everybody was on their own," he said. "There was a stampede across the Brooklyn Bridge and no way to use cellphones."
Fuerte was treated for injuries sustained when the elevator blew up in front of him - debris in his right eye and pain in his back and knee. He was also put on oxygen for four hours.
"While I was at the hospital I found a book of psalms in my bag and said my prayers."
It was at this point that he started seriously thinking about making aliya.
"Two years prior I had thought about it," he said, "but after the World Trade Center, I started to make serious plans. It took me a few years to get my act together, but now I am here."
Fuerte arrived, with the help of Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel, on July 13, 2005. He married three weeks ago and will spend the fifth anniversary of 9/11 on his honeymoon.
"It brings back painful memories," said Fuerte, who worked directly with at least 70 people who were killed that day and said another 355 people from his office did not make it out alive.
As for the security problems in his new homeland, Fuerte, who works for a high-tech firm in the capital, said, "There is terror all over the place and Israel is the Jewish homeland. All Jews should think about coming here."