If you woke up tomorrow and were told that you would be required to become a hero before the day is over, how would you feel? Suffice it to say that some would find their new role exciting as they dream of accolades and instant fame. The thought of superhero status would compel many to bound out of bed and race toward their new destiny. Now, imagine if this role of hero would require you to step out of relative safety, risk your own life, and make numerous life-and-death decisions with little time to consider the consequences. That seems like a reasonable cost for becoming a hero, correct? Finally, let’s imagine that you are advised that coupled with the accolades and risk would be a post-celebration tailspin and years of frustration, heartache, and uncertainty. Are you still game?
Unlike the Hollywood blockbusters, most heroes are not endowed with superpowers and groomed for their “big day.” In fact, heroes tend to come from the most unlikely places and are thrust into action at the most unlikely times. Michael Benfante definitely didn’t leave his New Jersey home the morning of 9/11 looking for fame. In fact, the communications company sales manager just wanted an ever-improving status quo in his life. Once a motivated and highly successful salesman, Benfante had struggled in recent years as the stock options and personal stock investments that represented his life savings had completely dissipated because of the large company’s mismanagement. Newly engaged to a great girl he met at work, Michael just wanted to get into work, take his morning call with the CEO and regional manager, and send his salespeople out onto the streets of New York by 8:30am. With those tasks accomplished, Benfante settled into his desk at the south corner of the 81st floor of 1 World Trade Center (the North Tower). Focused on his next set of tasks, Benfante was shocked into action as American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north face of the 93rd floor and sent fiery debris plummeting out of the southern windows past Benfante’s office. Racing out into the main office, Benfante found disarray and panic among some of the employees who had not yet left for their assignments. Shouting, “Calm down! Calm down!” Michael organized the employees and began the long climb down 81 flights of stairs. With no foot traffic coming from the upper floors, Benfante and his team made quick work of the first several floors. However, the lower they traveled, the greater the crowds and delay in the staircase.
When they reached the 68th floor, Benfante and another employee (John Cerqueira) stepped out of the stairwell to investigate why a small crowd of women had gathered in the hallway. There, they found a wheelchair-bound Tina Hansen waiting for rescue. Still unaware of the full extent of damage to the building, Benfante sensed that it was best to keep moving as quickly as possible. Seeing the concern in Hansen’s eyes, Benfante offered to help her down the stairs. Moments later, Tina Hansen was strapped into a portable cart and carried by Michael and John down the stairs. As they reached the lower floors, the trio’s descent was reduced to a crawl and they began to encounter the firefighters who had climbed up 30 or 40 flights to aid in the rescue. Before their trek was over, Benfante, Cerqueira, and Hansen would experience evidence of the horror that had been unfolding for the last 90 minutes. A reporter captured brief comments from Benfante as he struggled to come to terms with the scope of the attack. Moments later, that same camera would show Benfante running for his life as the North Tower succumbed to the destruction and came crashing to the ground.
For Michael Benfante, the following hours would consist of re-connecting with loved ones and being categorized as a hero in the national spotlight. For a brief time, Benfante resisted the media press, but he soon found himself being featured on major news and talk shows—even being referred to in one of President Bush’s speeches. In his book Reluctant Hero, Benfante reveals the mixed emotions that he felt in the midst of the tremendous acclamation that was being poured on him. Benfante learned what many heroes discover—the spotlight soon dims and life often comes crashing back in. As the world pressed on, Benfante found himself hurting and forever changed.
As we remember this horrible day fifteen years later, it is important to note that there are countless numbers of people who still struggle with what they experienced that day. As Benfante penned in his book, “I’m a survivor of 9/11. And if you’re reading this, so are you. You might not have been in the Towers with me, or near the Pentagon, but you were somewhere.”
We do a disservice if we ever allow the importance of that horrible day to escape our thoughts. It was a day when a salesman chose to stop and help instead of ignore and run. It was a day when firemen and police—hoping to save just one more person--ran into a building destined to fall instead of running away from it. It was a day when compassion overruled fear and bravery overruled terror. If we remember this difficult lesson, we are better prepared to act decisively when faced with the impossible.
Note: Reluctant Hero by Michael Benfante and Dave Hollander is available through Skyhorse Publishing.
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