What if you did something heroic and nobody noticed? What if you did helped someone and nobody took your picture, posted a video of you on YouTube or tweeted your accomplishment to the world? Would you still feel like a hero? Michael Benfante thinks you should try.
Ten years ago, Benfante experienced something that people called heroism. As the World Trade Center towers crumbled, he was approached by a television news crew. “Tell me what you saw and heard,” the reporter asked. Benfante told of the explosion, the confusion–and how he and co-worker John Cerqueira carried a wheelchair-bound woman down 68 flights of stairs. It was a linear recitation of facts, but for it, Benfante became an instant hero. He went on all the major news and talk shows, and was showered with awards. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that there were real heroes of 9/11 who better merited the spotlight. Real heroes who silently helped others through the horrors of the day. Real heroes who couldn’t be on television because they vanished in the rubble. As the calendar closed in on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, Benfante published a book, Reluctant Hero, to set the record straight about the invisible heroes of 9/11.
“There were many people helping,” Benfante says, “I just happened to have gotten caught on camera. If that camera wasn’t there, maybe my story wouldn’t have gotten out.”
Benfante is from Bloomfield, but Verona was were he came in the wake of 9/11, to the extended family that lives here. It was here that he began to think about the heroes that he saw as he descended from the north tower of the the World Trade Center. “So many people, all they see is the destruction and death of the day,” he says. “I needed to tell my story, that the world is made up of decent human beings.” And this is how he wrote of those people in his book:
“To this day, I can’t get those firemen out of my mind. I see their faces. With each one I passed, I saw in their eyes extreme exhaustion and extreme determination. Those looks shot through me then, and they still do now. I must have seen fifty, maybe a hundred–sweating, lugging heavy gear, knowing what we didn’t know, knowing they were headed toward incredible personal danger, risking their lives to help others. But despite their load, their fatigue, and their rush into danger, they calmed all of us. They told us in reassuring tones, ‘Just keep going’.”
Reluctant Hero is a call to service to honor people like the firemen, a request that we try to be the decent human beings that those firemen and countless others were a decade ago, and not just in moments of crisis. Benfante would like for September 11 to be a day on which we help those around us, simply and without recognition. No awards, no corporate sponsors, no press releases, no movie rights. “…[L]et each of us be a hero,” he wrote, “to be that person that so many of us were on the day the world now knows, and will always know, as 9/11”.
Benfante is asking us to return to a simple ethos of kindness, to take the world as it is, and make the best of it. “What I am proposing might be an idealistic thing, but we can still make an attempt at it,” he says. “All I want you to do is try. To do your best . That’s all we should ask of each other.”
Home page photo of New York City fire truck by exfordy via Flickr.