Under the majestic gothic stone arches of a Newark cathedral on Saturday, a man from Hasbrouck Heights hugged a woman from Brooklyn.
She thanked him again for saving her from death at the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks.
He shook his head.
"You saved me," he said.
Sometimes a chance encounter can change your life. Sometime it changes someone else's.
On Sept. 11, 2001, as smoke billowed from the World Trade Center's north tower, Paul Carris of Hasbrouck Heights rose from his desk on the 71st floor and tapped a colleague, Judith Toppin, on the shoulder. The two worked for the Port Authority — he as a transit engineer, she as a manager of aviation projects.
But they had never met — had never even laid eyes on each other.
On that fateful morning, Carris noticed Toppin sitting, helpless. Stricken with a debilitating lung disease and edema that left her legs swollen, Toppin could barely walk more than a few feet without feeling exhausted.
"I thought I might die," she recalled. "I remember hoping that it wouldn't be painful."
Carris took her hand and promised to lead her to safety — down 71 flights of stairs. "We're going to walk out of this building together," Toppin remembers him telling her.
And they did. Toppin and Carris were among the last to escape. Just before ducking into a nearby building, Carris says, he remembers looking back and seeing the north tower start to buckle and collapse. That's how close they came to dying.
Almost 10 years later, Carris says, he tapped into the trauma of that ifesaving experience to "save my own life" — and became a Roman Catholic deacon. He was ordained Saturday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark with 34 other men, including a retired FBI agent, an auto mechanic, a pediatrician, a letter carrier and a martial arts instructor.
"All of us need to know more about our destination and purpose of living," Carris told about 300 worshipers. "But we need to understand a more basic question: Who am I? To this question, Jesus answers, I am the light. It is through Jesus that we understand our own identity,"
The congregation applauded. Later, as the Mass ended, Carris' pastor, Monsignor Lewis Papera, turned to Carris and said, "We were inspired that you won a victory over darkness. May that be an inspiration to all of us as we confront the little 9/11s in our own lives."
The congregation applauded again.
The 9/11 attacks clearly changed America. There are, of course, the big changes — the soldiers sent overseas, the longer lines at airport checkpoints, the signs in buses telling us to "say something if we see something."
But there are subtle changes, too — the stories of how 9/11 altered the quiet corners of our lives.
Paul Carris is one of those stories. Or as Toppin describes it: "I think he needed something like that to happen in order for him to fully realize what he is supposed to be to doing on this earth."
What is remarkable — and ironic — about Carris' experience is that he is, by most people's definition, a bona fide hero. Walking a sick woman down 71 flights of stairs as others rushed by took more than patience. It was a singular act of courage.
He is tall. She is short. He is white, Catholic and grew up in the Bronx. Her ancestors are a mix of East Indians, Africans and whites — and all manner of faiths, from Anglicans to Muslims.
"We were meant to come together," she said in an interview.
For Carris, however, the aftermath of 9/11 was deeply troubling, especially after Toppin wrote a widely circulated Internet tribute to him, titled, "Angels Walk Among Us."
Carris said did not see himself as an angel — or a hero.
He ended up in therapy, then found himself sharing his 9/11 experience during a Catholic Cursillo retreat. Then, as he now puts it, he listened to a silence inside him that he now says was the voice of God — a confident silence he says he first noticed as he walked Toppin down the stairs in the north tower but did not realize at the time what it meant.
The voice later urged him to become a Catholic lay deacon — a special group of men the Vatican allows to be married and yet perform marriages, funerals, baptisms and other priestly duties except preside at Mass and grant absolution in confession.
Carris, 55, married and the father of two grown daughters, embarked on five years of preparation – a year of applications and interviews with church officials, followed by four years of classes, term papers and exams. He still worked for the Port Authority but at an office in Newark.
"What Judith wrote about me triggered this journey," Carris said in an interview. "I didn't know it at the time. But God puts us where we need to be. I served that purpose for Judith. And he put me there for myself. I now can look at her and say you changed my life."
Carris did just that — again — on Saturday.
After his ordination ceremony, he walked down the aisle of the cathedral. He hugged his wife, Carroll, a first-grade teacher at the Corpus Christi parish school, and their daughters, Colleen and Cathleen.
Then he noticed the 61-year-old Toppin.
She had changed greatly herself. She retired from the Port Authority several years ago. After undergoing gastric surgery, she said, she had lost 156 pounds and is now much more healthy and mobile.
"I want to cry," Toppin said as Carris hugged her.
"You can cry," Carris answered.
"Paul helped me to live," Toppin said.
"You started this," Carris said.
The two looked at each other for a few moments, not knowing what else to say. Toppin wiped away a tear. Carris smiled.
Then Carris' wife stepped forward and hugged them both.
"You saved one another," Carroll said.
Toppin and Carris looked at each other again. Then, they nodded and laughed.