Ruben Macaraig with his painting of Albert Einstein, which won second place in the 2017 New Jersey state senior art show in the professional acrylic painting category.

Ruben Macaraig always loved the arts—doodling on his notebooks, playing piano and guitar, and dancing as a child. But his childhood pursuits, as they often do, took a backseat to career and family in adulthood.

That is, until surviving the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center put his life in perspective.

Interpreting the tragedy as a sign that he should enjoy life, Macaraig took an early retirement, and rediscovered his love for art. It is a love that has evolved in the last 15 years, and recently led him to newfound acclaim.

Macaraig, 70, won 2nd place in the 2017 New Jersey state senior art show in the professional acrylic painting category. To be considered for the statewide contest, he had to win first place in the Mercer County Senior Art Show.

This was his third year participating in the show, and his first year registered in the professional category. He has exhibited his artwork on Fifth Avenue in New York City and around New Jersey, and chose to enter the Senior Art show as a professional to challenge to himself.

Macaraig and his wife, Loreta, have lived in Hamilton Township for 11 years. Loreta won first place in the Mercer County Senior Art show last year in the craft category for her “Peacock” on silk. The Macaraigs found out about the art show through the Lawrence Senior Center, where Ruben works part-time managing the kitchen and occasionally singing to the seniors there.

The couple met at Golden Gates College when they were still living and studying in the Philippines. They were married on April 23, 1972. Seeking a better life for their then-infant daughter, they emigrated to the United States in 1973, the same year the Twin Towers opened for business. The buildings would later serve as Macaraig’s workplace and the site of one of the major events in his life.

‘Some other people followed me into the elevator, and I didn’t tell them what I was thinking, ‘If the elevator stops, you’re dead.”

When the couple arrived in the U.S., they lived in upstate New York. During that time, they both worked in New York City. Loreta worked as a lead financial analyst for the Visiting Nurse Services, and Macaraig was pursuing his career in law. He also worked in the fashion industry in New York for a spell, and even owned a restaurant in the city for three years. The couple has a daughter, Jennifer, 43, who’s married and lives in Brooklyn.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he arrived to work shortly before 8 a.m. He sat down to eat his breakfast at his desk on the 40th floor of the World Trade Center. Before he took the first bite of egg white omelet with toast, he heard someone shout that everyone had to get out of the building. The building next to them had been hit by a plane.

Everyone rushed to the stairwell because the elevators weren’t working. Macaraig remembers the stairwell fit two rows of people side-by-side. He had no choice but to take a step down and stop, take another step down and stop. When he made it down to the 19th floor, he heard an announcement saying that it was safe to return to work and the crowd turned to make their way back up the stairs.

However, Macaraig told himself it wasn’t worth the risk and attempted to continue down the stairs. With the number of people going against him it was impossible to get anywhere, so he ignored the instructions he was told during routine fire drills and went to the elevator on the 19th floor and discovered it was working.

He took the cross he wore around his neck and kissed it before getting into the elevator, he remembers. “Some other people followed me into the elevator,” Macaraig said, “and I didn’t tell them what I was thinking, ‘If the elevator stops, you’re dead.’”

To his relief, the elevator carried them straight down to the first floor. He remembers there were people everywhere, either catching trains to work, tourists exploring the World Trade Center shops, or employees working. Many of them were still unaware of what was happening nearby.

Through the commotion, Macaraig noticed shattered glass covering the sidewalk and the street outside. He wondered how that happened because the other tower was on the opposite side of his building, so he went outside to investigate.

Macaraig remembers that there were crowds of people watching the first tower as it burned. As soon as he turned to see for himself the corners of the building he just left burst from the impact of the second plane crash and debris rained down.

At first, he planned to run as far and as fast as he could, but he knew it could take as little as one piece of debris to kill him, so he took cover in a nearby restaurant instead. “I just went into the restaurant and people are still working,” Macaraig said. One of the servers told him that they were supposed to continue on, business as usual. People were still sitting and ordering their breakfast.

According to Macaraig, cell service wasn’t working so there was a line of people waiting to use the restaurants landline. Finally, he got in touch with Loreta who was working in Midtown, he assured her that he would come to Midtown to pick her up, because if she left the building he was worried he might not be able to find her.

As he was about to set off to Midtown, he could see both buildings burning. Someone stopped him asking for an interview but he said, “No, I’m going.” He said he kept moving, but all he could think about was how many people will die if those buildings collapsed.

He barely got two blocks away when he watched the first building collapse. Immediately, he knew he had to get away from the smoke and dust.

“I thought there was a war because all the planes were flying low,” Macaraig said.

Ruben Macaraig at the Lawrence Student Center, where he works in the kitchen. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)

He ran to Chinatown, where he realized people were acting normal, as if nothing had happened. It was there that he was able to take a breath and realize that his building had also just collapsed. He couldn’t control his emotions any longer. Thinking about the number of people still in the towers, he broke down into tears.

He later learned all of his colleagues from his 40th-floor office got out before the building collapsed.

“Because the building is so big, you don’t even notice, it doesn’t even shake at all,” he said. “I could see people jumping out the windows, and if it’s me, I would jump too because my floor is burning, I don’t want to burn, I would climb to the window if I was there.”

No one in his company knew where he was for two weeks. He says he is fuzzy now on the details, but remembers having no way to reach out to his company. His co-workers thought he was dead until Macaraig reached out to one of them to let them know he was alive.

In order to show courage to its clients, Macaraig said his company denied an invitation to work in a building in Midtown. So when they resumed work he had to travel back to the financial district in Lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center is. The smell was overwhelming.

“For me, it’s like a cemetery every time I go there,” Macaraig said.

A month later, in October 2001, Macaraig heard that Paul McCartney was playing a benefit concert for the victims of 9/11 at Madison Square Garden, along with many other celebrities. Being a big McCartney fan, he immediately looked up tickets and found the cost to be between $2,000-$5,000. He found a contest that was giving away free tickets so he entered himself at lunchtime that day. To his surprise, he got a call that he had won two tickets.

Macaraig remembers going to the New York Post to pick up his tickets around the time of the anthrax attacks. When the representative from the Post heard he was a survivor, they set up an interview with him when he claimed his tickets. He was featured in the New York Post the next day.

The law firm he worked for closed down about a year after the attack. Macaraig interpreted it as a sign.

“I said to myself, ‘Maybe this is the time to rest. Maybe it’s one of my warnings that I should enjoy myself,’” he said.

He took an early retirement.

Macaraig loves music, dancing, art and photography. He did them all as a child, and was able to explore his artistic passions a little further after retiring.

Macaraig’s daughter, Jennifer, encouraged him to start painting again by giving him some paint and a canvas.

“That’s when I started painting,” he said, “I never went to school to learn but in high school all of my notebooks were covered, I loved to draw.”

Growing up, Macaraig played piano and guitar. He also achieved a black belt in Shotokan self-defense. In his adult life, he’s competed in semiprofessional bowling leagues around New Jersey and New York and now works part time managing the kitchen in the Lawrence Senior Center. He had previously worked at the Hamilton Senior Center.

He’s mainly known in New Jersey for his acrylic painting, but Macaraig has no limits when it comes to art. Whether he’s teaching friends how to ballroom dance, singing with the residents of the senior center or exploring his stained glass techniques, Macaraig will give it his all and then teach you how. He said he has tried to leave his job at the Lawrence Senior Center a few times, but the seniors there like him so much and he likes them so much that he has to stay.

“I can’t say no because it’s fun,” he said.

According to Macaraig’s personal biography, “to him, art is like a mystery to be solved.” His painting style is always changing. He started as a realist but has transitioned to abstract. He’s come to love abstract art, and his friends ask why he doesn’t have one style.

His response: “I challenge myself, if I know it’s hard to do, I do it. So my paintings are kind of different, they cannot be specified.”