On Sept. 11, 2001, Mike and Evelyn Benfante of Verona got a call from their son, Michael, who was working in the World Trade Center. He said he was walking down a smokey stairwell, after “some kind of an explosion,” and was leading others down. Assisted by a colleague, he was also carrying a woman in a wheelchair, with 68 floors to go. After he hung up from his father, he pushed on as the firefighters were walking up toward the flames. While his family watched on television, both towers collapsed.
They finally and miraculously heard from their son, almost two hours later.
“I saw horrible things that can’t be unseen or unremembered, but I also saw remarkable acts of helpfulness, selflessness, and generosity. That’s what I focus on to get through the memories,” explained Michael Benfante, Jr., almost 10 years after the attack.
The tragedy, escape and years of wrenching personal challenges are the subjects of Benfante’s new book, Reluctant Hero, A 9/11 Hero Speaks Out About That Unthinkable Day, What He’s Learned, How He’s Struggled and What No One Should Ever Forget, published by Skyhorse Publishing.
Raised in Montclair, now living in Bloomfield with his wife, Joy, and their four-year old son, Benfante explained how impressed he was with the composure of those trying to escape through the stairwell. “People were watching out for each other, helping each other, being kind to one another, in spite of the worst attack on American soil taking place all around them,” Benfante added.
When he got to the 68th floor, Benfante left the stairwell to determine the situation when he noticed some women huddled in a group. As he called for them to get out of the building, they parted and there he saw a woman in a wheelchair. After offering to help her, she accepted but Benfante soon discovered her motorized wheelchair was too heavy to carry.
Call it karma, fate or a guardian angel, but nearby, Benfante noticed a lighter-weight evacuation wheelchair. After strapping her in, Benfante and his colleague John Cerqueira returned to the stairwell and started the descent through what was now a more crowded and hotter experience. A little more than 90 minutes later, after more doors and windows were blown in from the collapse of the south tower next door, Benfante, Cerqueira and Tina Hansen, the wheelchair-bound woman, exited the stairwell to a waiting ambulance outside.
Hansen started crying and motioned to Benfante to give her a hug. “I hugged her, gave her my business card and asked her to call me to see if I retrieved her motorized wheelchair,” Benfante continued. “That’s when I realized I was so focused on escaping that I never asked her name. When I turned around, the second tower began to collapse. We got out five minutes before the building came down.”