NEW YORK - Paul Carris, now a deacon in the Corpus Christi Parish, was just a civil engineer for the Port Authority when the events of 9/11 unfolded. That fateful morning, he found himself inside the North Tower on the 71st floor.
But just as he was about to evacuate, he spotted Judith Toppin.
Toppin, then grappling with a heart condition and weighing over 300 pounds, faced an arduous task just to walk. Instead of leaving her behind, Carris offered a steadying hand and uttered words that would change both their destinies: "Stay calm, get up, we are going to walk out of this building together." And that's precisely what they did.
Hand in hand, they navigated the agonizingly slow descent down 70 flights of stairs, pausing on the landings to allow others to pass.
"Once I was committed to caring for Judith, that became my mission, step by step, for the next hour and a half," Carris said.
Once out of the building, Paul and Judith started to realize the magnitude of what happened.
"We got down to the lobby and at that point, it was really just us there was nobody behind us. We got out and there was nobody, it was all gray and almost no people. We headed north toward Vesey Street, and I realized we were stepping over bodies," Carris said.
It took Deacon Carris years to process what happened to him that day, but those events paved the way for a spiritual journey.
"In an absolute, concrete way I knew God was here and then at 9/11 in the stairwell, it's the only two times in my life I knew that absolute silence," Carris said.
‘Deacon Paul,’ as he's now known, says 9/11 transformed his life and set him on a path to develop a closer relationship with God. It would take years, but he left his job at the Port Authority for more religious life, studying and finally becoming a Deacon in the church.
"9/11 opened a door I didn't know needed to be open. Things changed radically in terms of my faith being part of everything I did. God is not just in my life but in everybody's life," Carris said.
Deacon Paul and Judith stayed in touch after 9/11 until she died in 2020, with Toppin's family telling him that his heroism gave Judith another 20 years to live and a chance to meet and see her grandchildren grow up.
How he and Judith survived when so many others did not used to haunt Deacon Paul but now, he trusts it was all part of God's plan.