<i>48 Hours: </i>Inside WTC 1

Stranger Returns Louis Lesce&#146;s Briefcase

Before the impact of Flight 11 was felt around the world, it was felt first in Tower One.

“It was more of a baloooooom…sounded like an explosion, then a series of other explosions like gas was being ignited,” Louis Lesce, an employment counselor, tells 48 Hours Correspondent Richard Schlesinger.

“Outside the door, the entire ceiling just collapsed and things started hitting the window and the place started filling with smoke.”

Lesce, who was working on the 86th Floor of Tower One, adds, “I don’t know what happened. I still don’t know what happened, but I got caught in two explosions.”

He had just gotten to work when Flight 11 hit. “We thought it was a Piper Cub, you know, someone flown off course,: he recalls. “Could not think of a passenger… think of the people in the plane, no choice. That is to me, the saddest part of the whole story.”

The end of Flight 11 was the beginning of terror for Lesce and so many others.

Lesce and a group of six others gathered in a conference room. The billowing smoke made it hard to breath. They broke windows to get some air, but quickly decided they had to escape.

“We went into a stairwell, “ he says, “and I think the frightening thing there - frightening thing for me - was the sound of the siren. It was so loud and so close. This 'woo-ah, woo-ah'.”

Once they got moving, the stairs were orderly - an eerie calmness. Lesce, who’s had a quadruple bypass, used his mind to help his body.

“I remember going down, thinking of my fourth-grade teacher, Sister Thomas, who said ‘Hands on the rail, single file, and no talking Mr. Lesce,.’ “ he recalls.

Lesce says he will never forget those coming up the stairs as he was going down.

“I remember one fireman, he stopped on that stair with me. We were just eye to eye, “ he says. “I remember his eyes, they were blue. And he looked at me and he said, with his eyes, ‘I’m gonna do my job.’”

Lesci made it down the stairs and out, and then found himself alone.

“I walk out - never ran in this whole thing, “ he says. “I was the last man on earth. Picture yourself standing in white ash, you have pockets of fire around you. Not a sound. No blue sky, no birds, no grass, nothing. And you see a fireman, and then you see some blue sky”.

In the tumult, Lesce lost his briefcase. “I was to find ,” he says, “when I came home from the hospital, a message on the answering machine saying, ‘Hi, my name is Peter. I’m a survivor, I hope you’re a survivor, too. I have your briefcase.’ “

This week, Lesce celebrated his birthday. “Sixty four years old…and still here,” he says, marvelling at something that wouldn’t have seemed all that extraordinary before Sept. 11.

Such acts of kindness were not uusual that day.

Michael Benfante works for Network Plus, a communications firm on the 81st floor of Tower One.

That morning, he says, he saw an “explosion…a light flash out my window. The whole doorway - the entrance to my office - blew open.”

After the impact of Flight 11, he calmed his staff then led them through the smoke and debris to the stairwell.

“I heard people shouting, he says. “I stopped at 68…there was a woman in a wheelchair.”

Benfante and coworker John Cequeira didn’t hesitate; they picked up 41-year-old Tina Hansen in her wheelchair and began carrying her down 68 flights of stairs.

He didn’t know Tina, And in fact, he had never recalled seeing her before that morning.

What was it that made him decide to help her?

“I acted in the only way that I knew how to, “ he says. “I can attribute that to my parents.”

He didn’t know how much danger he was in at the time – “ it’s probably a good thing, too,” he says.

If he had known, would he have done the same thing?

“I didn’t think twice about helping her at that point,” he says, “and I don’t know if I would have been able to live with myself if I didn’t help her.”

It took about an hour and half but the two carried Tina all the way down, and out of the burning building to what they thought was safety.

“At this point, Tower Two is already down, but I didn’t realize that,” says Benfante. “And there weren’t many people around; it was very bizarre.We see an ambulance and place her into the ambulance. At that point, she sits down and she, the first time, she really became upset. She started to cry.”

She didn’t say anything, just gave him a hug.

They had carried her down 68 flights of stairs, put her in an ambulance and walked away. But they still weren’t safe. Tower One, which had been struck by Flight 11 about an hour and forty minutes earlier, began to collapse.

“All of the sudden we hear this explosion, “Benfante says. “I can hear this rumbling. I look back once and I didn’t look back again. I just started running with all my might. And a wave of debris just came over and then everything went completely black and completely silent for a while.”

He didn’t know whether Tina’s ambulance had made it out. “I didn’t think she made it,” he says. “I just thought she got caught in the collapse, in the rubble.”

Benfante had forgotten to even ask her name. He learned her name - and her fate - days later from a reporter.

“She’s like, ‘Hi, Mike, this is so and so from People Magazine. I just wanted to talk to you about Tina Hansen.’ I was like, ‘What? She’s alive?’

“I couldn’t even speak to the woman after that, I was like a baby, I was crying.”

Benfante, who is nw looking for a new office, talks to Tina several times a week and he says she’s doing fine.”

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