Following his nomination (along with John Cerqueira) as a finalist in the Most Inspiring Person of the Year Award, Beliefnet spoke with Mike Benfante about his September 11 experience.

Q: The plane hit 4 floors above you on the 85th floor. What did it sound like?

Mke Benfante: Well, believe it or not, I remember hearing one of my reps screaming first: "Oh my God." Each floor of the World Trade Center is like an acre large -- I think 20,000 by 20,000 square feet -- and it hit the north side of the tower. My own personal office is on the south side of the building. So I think it actually took time to reverberate from one end to another. And he was standing on the north side of my office near the entrance doors -- and the entrance doors were blown off the hinges into the office upon impact.

And I heard him screaming, "Oh my God, oh my God," and I got up from behind my desk and went to the center of the office. I was yelling at everybody to remain calm. When I did feel the impact, I turned around and looked out my window and the whole building was shaking violently, like bad turbulence but from side to side, and you see flames shoot down -- past my window -- and debris falling down.

Q: What did you think had happened?

I had no idea. I was eerily calm thinking back on it. Because I was just -- I wasn't going to accept that it was anything other than maybe a gas explosion or I don't know, or some type of fire.

Q: The building had done drills since the bombing in '93. Did you have training in what to do or did you just head down because that seemed the logical thing to do?

There are fire drills, but no one really is prepared or anticipates an event like this occurring. I was yelling at them all to stay calm. I ran out of the office doors and I looked down the hallway and the walls behind the elevator shafts were blown down. And there were like ceiling tiles down. I look to the right where the stairway was and it was clear. So I ran back into the office and I was telling everybody to get to the center of the office -- 'cause I figured whatever it was, it was coming from the outside in. Everybody was saying, "We gotta get out." So I said, "O.K., let's get out." And we all started going down the steps.

But somebody said, "There's someone stuck in the bathroom." I thought they meant the men's room. So I ran back to my office, I grabbed my cell phone and grabbed my bag. Ran down the hallway, jumped over some debris that had fallen down from the ceiling and from a wall, and I did the combination on the bathroom door. I opened the door, screamed in there, but there was no response. The stalls were down; the ceiling tiles were down. It was smoky, like a bomb had gone off in there. Just yelled, nobody responded.

I climbed back over the debris in the hallway, went back into my office. The building is kind of airy -- I guess maybe windows were broken and it was kind of swaying a little. And everybody was already gone out of my office except for me and my assistant manager and so then we started going down the stairs.

Q: Where did you encounter Tina?

I get to the 68th floor where there were some people on the floor. I get down to the 68th landing in the stairwell, but the door was open to the floor. So I'm clearing people out.. Then I go down on the floor and I look down a hallway and then there were these women just standing behind the glass doors to their office. And it looked eerie to see that they weren't doing anything in all this chaos. So I ran down the hallway, banged on the door. and they pressed the button [to let me in]. The door opens and I start to yell to them: "You have to get out of here."

And then this woman steps aside and I see Tina sitting in her wheelchair.

She's in her motorized wheelchair [, but I notice] there was an emergency wheelchair there on the ground -- like an evacuation wheelchair.

Q: What is that?

It's lighter-weight, made for, I guess, emergency exits in the stairwell. So it was just on the ground. Nobody was doing anything with it.

I said, "You need some help?" She was like, "Yes." So I frantically tried to get this chair open. It had straps with Velcro, but the straps were actually meant to hold her in. So I see the lever in the back and I hit the lever. The chair opens up. I take her out of her wheelchair, strap her into this wheel chair, and I pick up the back and I start....

My assistant manager had the front maybe for a while and then I saw John and I said, "Gimme a hand here." 'Cause he was going to try to take the -- she was worried about her motorized wheelchair. She had no idea what was going on either. She was worried about that because I guess it cost [a fortune] and I was like, "We'll come back up and get it." I said, "It's too heavy." 'Cause we were actually going to try to get it in an elevator, I don't know. You just try to react.

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