Thousands of people who were in the World Trade Center, in New York City, on September 11th, 2001 and survived the worst terrorist attack in American history, carry with them experiences that are difficult for most of us to understand.
Michael Benfante, was a sales team leader, working on the 81st floor of Tower One, of the World Trade Center, on that fateful day. He came to national attention because he and a coworker, John Cerqueira, helped carry Tina Fansen, a woman in a wheelchair, down 68 stories of stairs to safety. The media rightfully hailed him as a hero. Yet, as Michael points out, there were many heroes that day.
At the time, Michael’s story was covered on a wide variety of media outlets. Now, almost 10 years later, Mr. Benfante takes us through an accounting of his life prior, during and after that tragic day, in his new book Reluctant Hero.
What follows are some excerpts of my CYInterview with Michael Benfante. To gain a broader understanding of his story, you will probably want to listen to the entire CYInterview by clicking below.
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To begin with, Michael Benfante tells us how 9/11 changed his life:
“I’m like the same person I was but rearranged in a sense I would have to say…I liken it to like when you have a child for the first time. You’re still the same person, but you’re rearranged, you’re different and it’s that child, it’s that life, that new love that does change you. Later on in life it was because I went on to have a son, but initially it was a traumatic experience. It was an experience of great hope and victory for finding the woman in the World Trade Center and being able to carry her out and save her life, but it was also a very traumatic experience in the things that I witnessed and the way I had to run for my own life. But even with that being said, there were just many countless measures of kindness and reaching out to people as well.”
On 9/11, Michael rallied his coworkers, on the 81st floor of World Trade Center one to get out after a plane crashed into crashed into the building, more than ten stories above them. No one was left behind. They all survived.
“I managed an office on the 81st floor. It was a sales office… When the plane hit about 12 floors above us, there was a lot of obviously, a lot of shock, a lot of fright, a lot of panic, but to see the way my employees or my sales reps came together and well, first they listened and then they came together and they headed to the stairwell and they left no one behind. They all went out together. Whether it was in pairs or whether it was in groups, they all went out together and they all survived and I’m just blown away by their camaraderie, their brotherhood and their consideration for each other.”
Michael says he and Tina, the woman in the wheelchair he and John Cerqueira carried to safety that day, still talk. He says they try to talk on September 11th every year.
“Tina’s doing fine. We talk once or twice a year. We usually try to speak on the commemoration of that day…This is really a day to commemorate a bunch of things…Hearing her voice and hearing how well things are going for her obviously makes me very happy as well.”
Every year on September 11th, Michael says he thinks about the firefighters he passed while going down the stairs of Tower One as he headed to safety. His descriptive account in Reluctant Hero makes you think you are right there with him.
“I think about the fireman that I passed on the way down in the tower. I think about their courage. I think about the whole way down, all they did was calm our fears whereas it was just to tell us to keep pushing forward. Telling us everything was going to be ok and that’s all they kept saying. You can tell what their lips were saying, their eyes weren’t telling the same story…
These fireman, they knew. They knew what was going on. They knew what they were facing and they kept going up to try to save others and to me they’re the ultimate heroes. To me, I just happened to get caught by a camera doing what I did…If you read my story, you’ll see that I have a hard time being considered or being called a hero especially when I pass 75 to 100 heroes going up, knowing what they were facing, but still going to help others.”
The word hero is something Michael continues to struggle with. He tells us he acted after he was asked for help. He still thinks about the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, a day when he escaped death and saved a woman’s life.
“I acted in the only way I knew how to. It wasn’t a matter of sitting there and calculating what could happen to me or what could happen. I saw someone who needed help. I asked a simple question, ‘Do you need help?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I went into action and we found each other for the next 96 minutes to be exact. We got out with six minutes to spare. If you look at it, everything kind of worked out for me that day. Everybody in my office on the 81st floor made it out…
After we were in there all that time and we placed Tina in an ambulance and we turned around and we started seeing the enormity of it all and we saw all the destruction and as I’m walking away, the top of the tower explodes behind me and I’m running for my life thinking at this point that I waited around down there too long and I’m not going to make it, this was the end and I still made it out of that. So everything kind of worked out for me as you could say and it wasn’t the same story for so many others and things worked out for my family and it wasn’t the same story for so many other families and I think about them more than you can imagine.”
In his book, Michael talks about the guilt of being alive. After 9/11, he admits he probably did not take the proper steps in addressing what happened to him that day. He deals with the guilt of being a survivor by paying tribute to those who died that day.
“I didn’t realize that I maybe was experiencing post traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t realize I was going into depression. I didn’t realize that this experience was affecting me in the way it was as I was living with it. By writing this book I was able to get everything out…I probably didn’t take the proper steps initially after all this happened and that’s what this book did for me. The way I deal with the guilt of being a survivor is living my life to commemorate those that gave so much, that gave the ultimate sacrifice…So I want to memorialize those people, those fireman, those countless others that gave because they were trying to give, by continuing to give by continuing to make the right choices by continuing to help others when they need help.”
Receiving coverage from Oprah, A&E Biography, Good Morning America, 48 Hours and USA Today, as well as having the event reenacted in a Spiderman comic book and gaining recognition from President Bush, the late Senator Ted Kennedy and Jim Carrey mentioning his name on the national 9/11 telethon, Michael admits the attention and press coverage were overwhelming. He says he got his story out to hopefully provide healing to others. At the same time, he pushed aside some issues that needed to be addressed.
“It was overwhelming. You’re trying to make sense of this. People want the story of carrying this woman out 68 flights, carrying her out of this building to safety…I still feel that l I did the right thing in that sense, but it was without addressing other issues. Sometimes I wish the camera wasn’t down there when I carried her out… John and I finding Tina, she was there as much to save our lives as we were there to save hers .”
Michael believes all of us have the ability to do good:
“We do have within us to do what’s right. We do have these untapped reservoirs, that goodness that just need to be tapped….I think that if we can just focus on trying to stop and check ourselves and just think about what we could do to help or what we can do that day to make a difference in someone else’s life or to make more of an impact in a positive way… I’m trying to be a better person as a result of everything I experienced, everything I went through these past 10 years.”
Michael Benfante’s book, Reluctant Hero, shares the resounding message that through the best of times and the worst of times, like September 11th, 2001, what we have through it all is each other.
“I still can’t put my mind around the fact that the towers aren’t there…I’m always going to remember it all…All we do, we have each other right? Now the way that we could really appreciate each other, the way that we could really enjoy each other is continuing to be considerate of each other. Continuing to, when we see someone in need or needs help, then try to reach out and help them. Everybody’s born with different abilities and different strengths and different intelligence. And you have to take what you’re born with and try and help people that maybe aren’t born with the same abilities, strengths and intelligence.”
You can find more information and purchase a copy of Michael Benfante’s book Reluctant Hero here
You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com