RELUCTANT HERO Michael Benfante and Dave Hollander Skyhorse Publishing, 2011 223 pages, $24.95
“Reluctant Hero” is the story of Michael Benfante, a survivor of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. His story is a chilling account of not only what he saw and did Sept. 11, 2001, but also of his 10-year personal journey to cope with those and ensuing events.
Benfante was the manager of Networks Plus on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
He was newly engaged to Joy, and they were getting married on Sept. 13, 2002. On Sept. 11, Benfante arrived at work early and noted that it was a beautiful day.
At 8:46 a.m., he was talking to a co-worker when he heard another co- worker scream; a second later he felt the impact of the jet crashing into the building.
He saw flames and yelled to everyone to calm down. Then he noticed that the building was swaying.
The elevators were inoperable, in part because the walls had been bent.
Benfante checked the floor to make sure everyone was accounted for and started herding people to the stairwell.
As he was going down the stairs, Joy phoned him and he told her he was fine.
He didn’t know she couldn’t hear him. On the stairwell, he ran into a fellow worker, John. When they got down to the 68th floor, Benfante noticed that some women were talking to another woman in a wheelchair.
He asked if she needed help, and she told him yes. Benfante and John carried the woman in an evacuation chair down the stairwell.
While they were carrying her, Benfante’s dad phoned and told him to get out of the stairwell.
From floors 55 to 33, they begin to see firefighters coming up and saw both “extreme exhaustion and determination” in their eyes.
From floors 33 to 21, Benante sees more people who have been injured.
He realizes that all the people on the stairs are in shock. On the 10th floor, they heard and felt a tremendous rumbling; they learned later that it was the South Tower falling. On the fifth floor, it was dark and smoky and water was up to their ankles. When they got to the lobby, they saw twisted metal, shattered glass and bandaged people.
Benfante, John and a firefighter took the woman they’d lugged down more than 60 floors to an ambulance.
Benfante was trying to decide which way to leave the area and then and was distracted by thudding sounds. Then he saw what was causing the noise — people jumping or falling from the tower and hitting the lower roof.
A cameraman came along and asked Benfante and others what they saw and heard. Just then they heard an explosion, turned around and saw the North Tower “erupting like a volcano.”
Benfante ran as fast as he could from the rumbling force behind him.
He ran under a truck for cover. What Michael didn’t know is that his running was caught on film and was rebroadcast worldwide.
Later, when reporters found out that he saved the woman in the wheelchair, he was recognized as a hero.
He was invited on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” interviewed by People magazine, and spoke to news stations and schools.
He even received a letter from President George W. Bush.
Later Benfante realized that all the attention was distracting him from healing and dealing with such questions as “Why did this happen?” and “Why did I live?”
His account, written with the help of Dave Hollander, an author and columnist for a variety of national publications, is both a heart-wrenching and uplifting story.
Maggie Braun is a teacher at Manhattan High School.