Book Excerpt: 'Reluctant Hero'

by Michael Benfante
"Reluctant Hero" by Michael Benfante (Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing)
"Reluctant Hero" by Michael Benfante (Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing)

The whole topic of 9/11 is never a matter of small talk to me. It’s no academic discussion. If someone casually says to me, “Hey, tell me your story,” I tell them, “Nah, it’s not going to work that way.” But if somebody asks me, sincerely, “You were that guy? Can you talk about it?” Then I say, “Why don’t
you ask me questions, tell me what you want to know, and I’ll tell you what I can.” That’s so much easier. I can handle that. Any other way is exhausting for me, and I don’t want to do it.

To this day, it’s impossible for me to give a summary explanation of how I really felt and what I really went through without telling everything—every single thing that I went through. I don’t know how, psychologically, to tell someone an abbreviated version of what happened to me. People ask, and I say, “Yeah, I was there.”

“Really?” they say.

Then they ask for more.

“Yes, I carried this woman down sixty-eight floors.”

Then what? Then what?

It’s a very intense and personal place to go. It takes a lot out of me. I don’t like bringing it up. I don’t go around telling people I carried a woman down sixty-eight flights in Tower 1 on 9/11. “There I was, World Trade Center, September 11 . . .” This isn’t the goddamn World of Commander McBragg.

Will I tell the story if asked? It depends on who’s asking and what kind of emotional space they’re coming from. But my story is not a cocktail party trick or somebody’s cheap entertainment option.

Obviously, and for many reasons, it’s an experience I now feel compelled to share with all seriousness, honesty, and emotion. But I can only tell it one way. That’s from beginning to end, with nothing left out. And frankly, rarely are there times and places where that’s an easy or appropriate thing to do.

Suffice it to say that I don’t like telling this story. I don’t even like thinking about it. For almost ten years I’ve stopped telling it altogether. And I’ve never really told the whole thing to anyone. That’s hurt a lot of people. It’s hurt me too. I want to tell it now. I need to tell it.

And I want to get it right. I will try hard—very hard—to tell it exactly like I remember it.

I’m still not sure I understand it—what it’s meant, how it’s changed me. Some call me a hero for it—for what I did on 9/11. I’m not very comfortable with that. What I do know is I need to tell everything to everybody (and I need to hear some things as well).

I know that if I retrace my steps, I can tell you how I came to be on the 81st floor of the World Trade Center, Tower 1, on 9/11, sitting at my desk at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane hit just
twelve floors above me.

And then I spent the next ninety-six minutes inside Tower 1.

I made it out, barely.

I was one of the lucky ones.

Sometimes I feel so awful about it I can’t hear myself think a single thought. Other times I draw such hope and clarity from it. Either way, it’s time to talk about it. So let me try here to tell you, and myself, what happened. Like I said, I will try hard to get it right.

Copyright 2010 by Michael Benfante and David Hollander

This program aired on September 9, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

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