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.

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

So I start carrying her down in the back. And then it ended up being myself and John carrying her in the front. Different people switched off in the back.

Q: At this point is the stairwell just jammed with people?

Yeah, it's crowded, but it was relatively calm. People were very helpful -- trying to help out.

We put her down on the 55th floor and I got her a glass of water and I ran into an office and I called my parents real quick and my dad picks up. And he's obviously beside himself. He's been trying to call me. So, I got through to him and he asks, "What's going on?" He's watching on TV. Now he's seen the second plane hit the second tower. But I didn't know what was going on and I didn't give him enough time to tell me. I just said, "Listen, I'm helping a handicapped woman down the stairs. I'm O.K. I'm gonna try and find an elevator." I think he thought I said I was in an elevator. And then I said, "I'll call you when I get down. I gotta go. Bye." And I hung up. And then he saw.obviously he saw both towers go down. So I didn't talk to him again until two hours after I'd spoken with him -- and about 40 minutes after the second tower went down. It was a tough day for him. For my parents. My family. My fiancée. They all had a tough day.

Q: Were they mad at you afterwards? Obviously proud of you, too, but if I'd been your fiancée, I might have wanted you to focus more on getting yourself out...

Well, she got through to me in the stairwell. She works in New York. Now she saw it, because we both live over in Jersey City, so she saw it going down. She saw the first plane hit, but didn't see the second. She called me at 8:52 -- 'cause I checked my cell phone bill -- and I could hear her -- and I'm talking to her. But she couldn't hear me -- she just heard static. So I thought she heard from me -- so I didn't even get -- didn't talk to her 'til after 11 o'clock. So she had a rough day.

Q: So why did you feel like you needed to do all this?

Well, I manage an office of about 40 people. And there were 28 reps in the office at the time. And, yeah, I guess I'm not the one to just kind of run out, think of myself. I mean, I had other people to think about. And when I came across Tina, I just like.Let's just do it. Let's do it. Whatever we're going to do, let's do it and keep moving and.I didn't know her name the whole way down. I never asked her her name.

You ever see that movie the Poseidon Adventure? Remember when they're in the hold of the ship, trying to get out? That's what it reminded me of -- being on the 5th floor.

On the way down, we started coming across firemen [around the] 40th floor. And they had full packs, and tools, and gear. going up to save people. And they're trying to keep us calm. One of them -- I guess they weren't sure what was the matter with Tina -- she did have a mask on -- said, "You know you can put her down on the 21st floor. Because there's a medic station set up there and they'll be able to help her."

So as we got close to the 21st floor, I just looked back at Tina and I said, "Listen, do you want me to drop you on the 21st floor?" And she said, "Well, you know." and she was relatively calm. She was a little upset because we were jostling her around in this chair. And I go, "Listen I'll take you all the way out of here. Just tell me what you want me to do." And she goes, "Take me out." And John and I never let go of her.

Then we get down further. And we were in Tower 1 when the second tower came down -- but I think we were around maybe the 10th floor -- from the 10th to 5th because I remember the doors to the stairwell were being blown in by this wind, this gust-force wind. And I remember watching -- they were ahead of me -- two people with all their might try to push this door and keep smoke out and everything. So we have to hold [the door] in to get by it -- and then it would swing back open again from this wind, this force.

And then we got lost. We got stuck on the 5th floor, which must've been like a maintenance floor. And it was dark, there was water up to our ankles, and it was smoky. We couldn't see where we were going. We were with firemen at this point and they tried to get us out one way, [but] there was no way out; we tried to go out another way, [but] there was no way out. I think it's because the tower was coming down. And it was getting a little scary at that point.

And I'm trying to move debris to wheel her. We were picking her up, carrying her over things. It was like -- you ever see that movie the Poseidon Adventure? Remember when they're in the hold of the ship, trying to get out? That's what it reminded me of -- being on the 5th floor.

Finally a fireman says, "Come on, I think we found a way out this way." I don't really remember going down the last four flights. And we get out. in the lobby of World Trade Center One -- where I go up every day -- but I'm on the West Side Highway side. So when I look back, the lobby just looks like a war zone -- massive destruction.

Q: What happened once you got out of the building?

We walk across the West Side Highway -- you know, with the divider there -- and we had to get to the other side, which was facing south. We finally get her to an ambulance. We put her in. And she finally becomes a little upset, starts to cry. And she motions me with her hands to give her a hug.

And that's when I felt bad. I thought, "You're gonna be O.K." And I give her a hug. I said, "Here's my business card." I said, "When I go back up, I'll help find your wheelchair."

Then I'm looking up at my building and I can see the smoke and the flames. And John walks up; he's trying to get out of there. I'm a little disoriented. I'm thinking I can still find my reps -- I didn't realize how long or how quickly they got out. I'd been in there now probably about an hour and forty minutes.So I got out five minutes before the second tower.. Well, I'll tell you what happened.

I looked up at John and he's standing in the street. I see his chin going to his chest and he's upset. And I walked up to him and he's like, "Mike.." He's crying. And he says, "Do you hear that thumping?" And I look up and I see the people -- falling. And they're landing on top of World Trade Center 7 or 6 -- whatever it is -- the customs building -- the black building -- and you can hear it. And then I said, "O.K., let's get out of here."

So we start to walk away and some cameraman comes in my face and he starts interviewing me. "What's your name? What did you see in there?" "Can you tell me what you saw?" And then all of a sudden I hear this explosion. And I look up once and I just saw the top of the tower exploding and starting to crumble it seemed. But I didn't even know the other tower was down at this time.

It was odd because there was nobody around really, and you had all that white soot and stuff. It was all from the other tower, but I didn't realize it. Now I thought just the top of the tower was falling down on top of me, so I just took off and I started running. So the cameraman's running backward, filming me. I'm thinking this guy's nuts. He's gonna die..

I run and John's running behind me.and I'm thinking, "I gotta find cover." And I dove under a truck, the corner of a truck. So I got as much of my torso underneath there. And then you feel these little waves of debris hitting the truck, and glass breaking, and then everything just went black.

Q: How black?

Black like I've never experienced in my life. I mean, it was broad daylight, a beautiful day, sun shining, and it was black. I couldn't see the hand in front of my face and I couldn't breath.

That must've been terrifying.

So, I feel this body lying next to me and I thought it was John. But it wasn't. I was calling for him, but he's not responding. I thought the worst for him. And it was a fireman and I just hear this voice saying, "Just stay down. It'll pass." After a few minutes it passed.

The few minutes it took -- it was terrifying. I was very lucid during the whole thing. I said to myself, "This is what it must feel like to die from smoke inhalation." But I gotta remain calm, I gotta keep my mouth shut. I shouldn't be breathing in. I took a breath in and it was like sucking in ash from a fireplace..I don't know, I was just.doing whatever. You just survive. I wasn't accepting anything. And I think just that I'm not accepting that any of this is happening to me.

Q: You climbed out from underneath the truck, started walking uptown with John, and stopped on the street to call your family. What happened next?

John sees a church and he's asks, "Wanna go in?" and I'm like, "Yeah." And I just walked in and I dropped to my knees in the first pew. John went right up to the cross. He's trying to light a candle or something and I just didn't know what to say. I mean I haven't been to church like I should and I was just like, "God, I don't know what I did to be in your good graces, but thank You." And that was it.

Q: Do you think you were saved? Or just lucky?

I was spared. I definitely was. Many people weren't.

Does it make you feel you have to do anything differently now?

Yeah, yeah. I'm definitely going to church every Sunday again. And I think I have to make better use of my life. There's so much more that you can do. You get caught up in the rat race. It's so...it's so clichéd, but you don't take time to appreciate what you have. Sometimes you just gotta say, "Certain things just aren't that important." What's important is your life and other people's lives and your family and your friends.

Q: When you were up in the WTC, if you had known more about what was going on, would you have done anything different?

Well, I can't honestly say. Who know? Would I have been that terrified? Who knows? I do know that I don't think there's any way that I would have been able to leave someone there like that. I would not be able to live with myself. I think I can honestly say that. There's just no way.

I just reacted. I was just like, "Let's do it." I try not to ever think about the enormity of any of it all. Obviously, it didn't hit me until really that night or the next day. The enormity of it. Even now. You still hear things that add to the enormity of the situation. Even if you see it, days later, all that massive destruction. That you were there and you were able to come out of there -- it's just hard to fathom.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad