By People Staff
October 01, 2001 12:00 PM

So prevalent is Hollywood’s version of heroism—gargantuan special effects, preposterous luck, bulging muscles, flash-pot explosions—that the intimate scale, and infinitely greater impact, of the real thing comes as a breathtaking surprise. On Sept. 11 hundreds of police, firefighters and ordinary people made extraordinary split-second choices, putting themselves at risk to save people they often did not know. Battling fire, debris and fading hope, rescuers in New York City and Washington, D.C., came to work in suits, uniforms and blue jeans—and now wear badges of honor.

Tina Hansen, 41

Two men team up to carry a woman in a wheelchair to safety

Tina Hansen is quick and nimble in her wheelchair; diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 3, she has been using one for most of her life. But when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, Hansen, a marketing supervisor at the Port Authority of NY and NJ, was immobilized by the impossible task of descending 68 flights of stairs. Although she had a special lightweight chair designed for just such a scenario (it had been given to her after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), it would be of little use without a couple of strong-armed carriers. Says Hansen: “I didn’t know how I was going to get out.”

Enter Michael Benfante, 36, a communications company manager who spotted her seated helplessly behind a set of glass doors. Hansen nodded toward her emergency chair, which was tightly folded. Joined by his coworker John Cerqueira, 22, “I was frantic trying to figure out how to get it open,” says Benfante, who lives in Verona, N.J. Meanwhile, Hansen pleaded with him to help carry down her precious $8,000 electric wheelchair. “It was heavy,” says Benfante. “There was no way.”

With Hansen safely strapped into her lightweight chair, Benfante and Cerqueira began making their way down. “We were a team,” says Benfante. Along the way “we tried to keep it light,” says Cerqueira, who returned to his home state of North Carolina after the attack. “I’d ask Tina, ‘You all right, babe? You’ve got luxury service!’ ”

The mood darkened considerably when the group reached the fifth floor, which was pitch-black and flooded from the building’s sprinklers. “It was like being in The Poseidon Adventure,” says Benfante. “It was slippery, and I was moving stuff out of the way so we could push Tina. I wasn’t going out unless she was with me.” All the while, Hansen remained “brave and calm,” says Benfante. “She was something else.”

When they reached the street, Hansen was placed into a waiting ambulance. Minutes later the tower began to collapse, and Benfante and Cerqueira—who narrowly escaped the crashing debris—feared that the ambulance carrying Hansen might not have made it out in time.

It did, and a few days later Hansen spoke by phone with Benfante and Cerqueira. “Mike was really happy and excited,” says Hansen, who lives in Manhattan. “He said that hearing about me capped his day.”

David Theall, 37

A resourceful worker finds a jagged and terrifying path toward salvation

After the second plane hit the World Trade Center, David Theall received a phone call from a close friend. “She jokingly said, ‘You know, the Pentagon is next. You better get out of there,’ ” says Theall.

Mere seconds later American Airlines Flight 77 crashed near Theall’s office. “I watched the wall beside me just crumple like a sheet of paper, and I was blown back 25 feet,” he says. When he stopped moving, Theall, a Pentagon public affairs specialist, was still clutching the phone. And already thinking about his next move. “I wasn’t stunned,” he says. “I was spring-loaded.”

Climbing over a collapsed wall, Theall yelled for his dazed office-mate, public affairs specialist Carl Mahnken, 39, who lives in Stafford, Va., with his homemaker wife, Hope, 50, and their children Matthew, 14, and Amanda, 12. “Cowboy, we’ve got to get out of here,” Theall urged.

As the air filled with smoke and fumes, Theall, who had worked at the Pentagon since July, led Mahnken through the darkness. The two men pulled themselves along with the help of dangling electrical wires and metal strips that once held up the ceiling’s tiles. “I knew instinctively where to go,” says Theall. “I never lost my bearings.”

Not even after he and Mahnken ran into a concrete wall. Pulling back steel reinforcement to create an escape hatch, the pair climbed into another office, where seven other workers had been trapped before Theall led them out through the rubble. “I said, ‘Man, you’re like a bird dog—you’re finding holes,’ ” Mahnken recalls. One of those holes led to “sunlight coming through the dust and smoke,” Theall says, and the group fled to safety.

Now back at work, Theall—who’s been divorced since 1998 and lives alone in Alexandria, Va.—has made a new close friend. “Carl and I have very little in common,” he says. “But from now on, just a look between us will mean something no one else can understand.”

Dr. Robert Lahita, 55

With the injured arriving in waves, one physician stemmed the tide

For two hours on Tuesday morning a lone doctor stood on a New Jersey pier as tugs, ferries and Coast Guard boats unloaded hundreds of the wounded. “We held the fort,” says Robert Lahita, who was making rounds as rheumatology chief at St. Vincent’s hospital in Manhattan when news of the attack arrived. Lahita grabbed a train to Jersey City, where he’s a director for Hudson County’s Emergency Medical Service, and where he had left his car on his way to work. He called an EMS dispatcher and was sent to the Colgate-Palmolive piers, across the Hudson from the ruined towers. Two paramedics and four emergency medical technicians were struggling with the crush of victims. “Then Dr. Bob showed up, took a deep breath and took over,” says paramedic Nickie Slattery, 36.

“It was a nasty scene,” says Lahita. “One guy had an open skull fracture. You could see his brain.” He tried to radio for more help, but the transmitter, atop the Trade Center, had been destroyed. Bandages and other supplies were fast running out. Fortunately workers from nearby offices pitched in with first-aid kits, chairs to use as stretchers and Venetian blinds to serve as splints.

By noon, with other doctors arriving and the 200 most critical patients taken to local hospitals, he was ferried back to help out at Ground Zero. Lahita, who lives with his wife in Ridgewood, N.J., remains shaken. “I’m a mess,” he says. But he is thankful. “I said, ‘Nobody is going to die on my shift.’ ” And no one did.

Long-Distance Assistance

Amid calamity, all roads lead to the Big Apple

In April 1995 firefighter Bill Callinan of rural Liberty, Ky., answered the call from Oklahoma City. “The hardest thing was to haul out so many babies,” Callinan, 49, says of the 19 children killed at the America’s Kids daycare center in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. “After that I’d told myself never again would I do something like that.” But then came Sept. 11. “I turned on the TV and saw the smoke and flames, and I knew I was going.”

In just hours, Callinan raised $2,000 and collected donations of food and 15 cases of first-aid supplies from in and around Liberty, a tobacco-farming community of 1,500, and joined a nationwide mobilization of thousands coming to the aid of New York City. They were cops from Virginia Beach, Va., and Ann Arbor, Mich.; coroners from Canada; firefighters from as far as California and Oregon; and one man from Nebraska who loaded a bulldozer on the back of a flatbed truck and drove it to downtown Manhattan, asking for directions along the way. “We’re here no matter what,” said one ironworker from Brooklyn.

After working a full day on Sept. 11, Lt. Al Cotera, 43, of the Miami police department joined 16 other officers who hastily packed bags and headed north in two squad cars and two vans. “We got here on Wednesday at about 6 p.m. and went straight to the Emergency Operation Center to get our assignments,” says Sgt. Jorge Gomez, 40. For the most part, the Florida cops stood guard at the perimeter of the disaster area, working on adrenaline to stay awake. And as their cavalcade of cars moved down Manhattan’s West Side Highway, they were met by grateful city residents who handed them bottled water and held signs of thanks. “It brought tears to my eyes,” says Miami police officer Sal Lozano, 45. “In 20 years of service, I have never seen anything like that.”

K-9 Rescuers

For highly trained dogs, a hazardous, frustrating assignment at Ground Zero

In the wreckage of the World Trade Center, a man and his dog play tug-of-war with a white pull toy. But it’s not really a game. “When Ronnie finds something, he’ll sit down,” explains Dave Lee, 45, a retired Philadelphia police officer, of his partner, a German shepherd. “Then I’ll reward him.”

Sadly, Ronnie, who is primarily trained to search for survivors, has been finding only bodies. Working 12-hour shifts, Ronnie and some 300 other K-9 rescuers—including Bella, a Border collie who came from L.A. with her handler, firefighter—paramedic Deresa Teller, 47—pad over hot rubble, leading to injuries, dehydration and exhaustion. “The dogs are coming in covered with ash,” says Andy Rose, one of 10 veterinarians staffing the tent set up to treat the canines with everything from antibiotics to IV drips. “They are stressed out and irritable.” Vets are seeing fewer paw cuts, however, thanks to thousands of donated heavy-duty dog booties. (Some 1,500 of these were sewn since Sept. 11 by ex-nurse Louise Russell, 48, and helpers in Duluth, Minn.)

So far one dog has plummeted 40 feet, another 20 (both survived). Some suffer a sort of canine depression. The animals start getting discouraged, says Teller, if they don’t find anyone. To prevent this, handlers take turns hiding for each other’s animals so that the dogs experience some success. “Doing a live find,” she says, “helps build a dog’s confidence.” As for Lee, his determination remains. When it comes to a rescue, he says, “there’s always hope.”

Patty Horoho, 41

As the Pentagon burned, a courageous nurse-cum-bureaucrat organized medical operations

The instant the hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Patty Horoho, an Army health-policy officer, fell back on her early training—not as a military bureaucrat but as a certified nurse specializing in burn care and trauma. “I felt like my life and career had been a preparation for this moment,” says Horoho, who joined the service 18 years ago. “I truly believe that is why I could take charge.”

Take charge she did. Horoho raced from her damaged section of the building to set up a triage center, where she treated more than 75 people, initially with only a first-aid kit. She put evacuees to work setting up IV bags and cutting clothing off burn victims before EMT workers began to arrive. Those who followed her orders included a brigadier general and three sailors who had crawled out of the fire on their bellies. “They came up to me, their clothes ripped, their hair singed, and said, ‘Can we help?’ ” says Horoho. Also working beside her was Air Force Master Sgt. Noel Sepulveda, 51, who served as a medic in Vietnam and the Gulf War. “She showed great resolve and courage,” he says.

So focused was Horoho that nearly four hours passed before she stepped away to call her own family. (By then fire officials had appointed Dr. James Vafier, an emergency doctor at nearby Inova Alexandria Hospital, as head of medical operations.) When Horoho finally rang her husband, Raymond, 42, she says, “I got the warmest ‘I love you’ I’ve ever gotten.” Raymond—a business consultant and a reservist in the Pentagon’s crisis coordination center—took their three children to a neighbor’s house and was called into the Pentagon that afternoon. He worked until the next evening on the Army’s reservist mobilization plan.

“It was an integrated effort by so many people,” says Horoho of the rescue operation. “I had never really thought about the name ‘United States’ before, but ‘United’ now has a very powerful meaning. I couldn’t be more proud to be an American.”

Michael Middleton, 35

While workers retreat, a Virginia state trooper plunges deeper into danger

For a man who has spent nearly five days breathing through a ventilator tube, Virginia state trooper Michael Middleton’s voice is strong. “I can still smell and taste jet fuel,” he says from a bed at the Alexandria, Va., hospital to which he was taken after he suffered throat burns in the Pentagon fire. Responding minutes after the attack (he had been on rush-hour traffic duty less than five miles away), Middleton, the father of two young boys, says he and fellow state trooper Myrlin Wimbish, 51, helped three workers out of the building before losing contact with one another in the thickening smoke. “People didn’t know where to go,” he says.

Middleton and three others, including a construction worker familiar with the Pentagon’s layout, then pushed deeper into the collapsing structure, charging up three flights of stairs in search of survivors in the burning upper floors. “I remember I crawled halfway into a [second-floor] conference room, and the smoke just dropped on us,” says Middleton. After spotting firefighters on the fourth floor, Middleton headed for an exit on the ground floor, but by then the heat of the inferno had melted his metal name-plate. He recalls feeling dizzy, then collapsing. “The next thing, I’m here in the hospital,” he says.

As he recovers in an intensive-care unit, attended by his wife, Karin, 33, who works at the Arlington state trooper office as a secretary, Middleton says that in a sense, he was always prepared for that terrible day. “All this hero stuff, I don’t want it,” he says. “I don’t consider myself anyone special. I’m just glad I was there to help.”

Silvion Ramsundar, 31

Gravely wounded, he was kept alive by a stranger

He could still feel his legs. Based on that, says Silvion Ramsundar, an investment executive, “I knew I had a chance to make it out.” What he didn’t know was how severely he had been injured. On the 78th floor of the south tower during the initial blast, Ramsundar suffered a collapsed lung and a broken collarbone, and a piece of metal almost the size of a playing card became lodged near his aorta. Bleeding and in shock, Ramsundar, who lives in Queens with his wife, Nimmi, 32, and daughter Mariah, 4, managed to make his way down nearly 30 flights of stairs. “On the 50th floor I wanted to rest, but a stranger, a guy named Doug, put his arm around me and said, ‘If you can make it, let’s keep going,’ ” says Ramsundar. “He kept telling me everything was going to be all right.”

His mystery rescuer turned out to be Douglas Brown, a 54-year-old Morgan Stanley executive who was fleeing with a colleague when they encountered Ramsundar. “He had a very faraway look in his eyes,” says Brown, who lives in Summit, N.J., with his wife, Alice, 55. “You noticed how many cuts were on his face.” When Ramsundar said that he was bleeding badly just above the heart, Brown and his colleague quickly fashioned a compress with a handkerchief and continued moving.

Upon fleeing the building, Brown rushed Ramsundar to a medic. “A fireman gave me a compress to hold over his chest,” says Brown. “I held it with my right hand and with my left hand tried to dial Silvion’s wife.”

Within minutes Ramsundar was whisked away to a nearby hospital as Brown rushed to escape the falling debris. On Sept. 16 the pair were reunited on the phone. “It felt real good talking to him,” says Ramsundar, who is expected to make a full recovery. Brown, meanwhile, reminded his new pal of the vow he had made during their treacherous descent together: to buy Ramsundar a beer after the ordeal was over. Ramsundar wasn’t having it. Recalls Brown: “He said, ‘Nope, I’m going to buy you a beer.’ ”

Air Force Surgeon General Paul K. Carlton Jr., 54

A doctor calls on his training—and goes well beyond the call of duty

In May Paul Carlton took part in a training drill: preparing for the crash of a 757 passenger jet into the Pentagon. “Every day we’d see those planes from National Airport turning 100 yards from the building,” He says. “We decided to practice for what would happen—if.”

The scenario was tragically prescient. When American Airlines Flight 77 struck, Carlton’s team followed the rehearsed procedures, including donning blue fireproof vests (which identified them as medics), before heading outside to help survivors. No one emerged, though, so Carlton, a father of four grown children, drafted a team of four to run into the burning building. “The clock was ticking,” he says. “I thought, ‘If we wait for normal rescuers, we won’t have anyone alive.’ ”

As they struggled to see through the smoke, Carlton learned of a man trapped inside a blazing room. Fighting past chest-high debris (“a broken TV monitor, pieces of a chair, garbage,” Carlton says), his team located the dazed victim—Jerry Henson, 64, who combats drug trafficking for the Navy—under a desk. “I put a wet cloth on his face to help him breathe and encouraged him to get moving,” Carlton says. He then helped direct his team to carry out the man on a stretcher they had brought with them. “I expected him to just be standing there and giving orders, but General Carlton jumped in,” says Air Force Master Sgt. Paul Lirette, who also helped to free victims. “That’s the kind of man he is.” And he wasn’t finished helping the wounded: After emerging from the building, Carlton set up a triage site, loading up ambulances with burn victims.

Four days later Henson was released from the hospital, and his son called Carlton with thanks, noting that his father was still too shaken to talk. But the three-star general, who lives in Washington with wife Jan, 54, a teacher, is trying to draw on his terrifying memories for inspiration. “I’m keeping my vest in my basement,” he says. “It’s a reminder that we live day-to-day.”

Debbie Mardenfeld, 30

Facing amputation, she got a reprieve from determined surgeons

When Debbie Mardenfeld was wheeled into New York University Downtown Hospital—minutes after a passerby, project manager Paul Dowe, 43, found her in the rubble of the World Trade Center—she was barely alive. “Her heart was still beating, but everything else had stopped working,” says orthopedic surgeon Nelson Botwinick, 46. Falling debris had ripped the flesh from the back of the American Express administrator’s torso, sheared her left heel and shattered her legs.

One surgeon wanted to amputate below the knees, but Botwinick wouldn’t hear of it. “I felt confident that I knew what to do,” he says. “I made the call.” For the next seven hours—through a power failure caused by the collapse of a nearby building—he and three other surgeons worked to piece together Mardenfeld’s mutilated body.

It wasn’t until she awoke in the recovery room early Wednesday morning and asked for someone to phone her parents and fiancé that her rescuers learned Mardenfeld’s identity. They also got to know her buoyant spirit. “I’ve never met a patient like her,” says Debbie Kowalski, nurse manager of the intensive care unit. “She’s very positive, always thanking people and kissing hands. She’s happy to be alive.”

Doctors warn that Mardenfeld still faces the danger of infection in coming weeks. But if she survives, with luck she will be able to walk again—and dance at her wedding to Greg St. John next year. Dr. Gerald Ginsberg, NYU Downtown’s director of plastic surgery, is optimistic. The day after the blast, he says, Mardenfeld grabbed a tablet and wrote, “So doc, my butt is smaller?” Says Ginsberg: “She has the attitude to get through this.”

Saade Mustafa, 29

Proud of his heritage, he illuminated the rubble

A sense of dread filled Saade Mustafa when he learned of the attacks. “My first thought was, ‘I hope the terrorists are not Arab,’ ” he says. “I knew there would be backlash.”

Determined to help with the rescue effort, Mustafa, a native New Yorker and Gulf War veteran who works as an electrician for the NBC drama Third Watch, headed to the wreckage. “I am American, 100 percent,” he says. “I served my country once, and I wanted to serve it again.” He unloaded food and set up lights so rescue workers could continue through the night. But he says he felt self-conscious at the site (only about 50 of New York City’s 11,500 firefighters are Muslim), and he cringed when other volunteers called his name. “They were yelling, ‘Hey, Saade!’ ‘Hey, Mustafa!’ ” he recalls, “and I was thinking, ‘Call me Moose.’ That’s what people called me in the service.”

The son of Palestinian immigrants, Mustafa says he fears for the safety of his mother, Sakibeh, 48, who wears a traditional Islamic headdress. And he emphasizes that his Muslim faith is a world apart from that of the terrorists, who, he notes, represent “really, really warped views about how we’re supposed to live our lives in the world today.”

Armando Reno, 55

All too rare: a firefighter who made it out of the Trade Center rubble

As soon as she heard about the attack, Virginia Reno, 50, knew her husband, a 29-year veteran of midtown Manhattan’s Engine Co. 65, would make it to the scene nearly 60 blocks south in a New York minute. “He’s the driver, and he goes pretty fast,” she says. Indeed, Armando Reno, among the first firefighters in the area, was dousing a car fire in the street when the second tower collapsed, burying him beneath the rubble.

Hearing nothing from Reno for hours after the 10:29 a.m. collapse, his frantic family—including children Stephen, 24, a Marine stationed in San Diego; Michael, 26, a New York City EMS worker who was not on the scene; and Amanda, 21, a community college student—feared the worst. “Any time there’s anything that makes the news, he calls to say he’s okay,” says Virginia, a Department of Motor Vehicles clerk. Then, around 3 p.m., she got a call from Bellevue Hospital: Armando was there, having been dug out by fellow firefighters from beneath wreckage that a squadmate says included steel beams and two motorcycles. The news, however, was not all good for Engine Co. 65, whose members helped evacuate workers after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. One firefighter from the 25-man company, Thomas McCann, remains missing at the scene. Reno “is damned glad to be alive and damned sad about everyone else,” says his mother, Hope, 79.

After six days in the hospital with a broken foot and scapula and back injuries, Reno—who fought in Vietnam as a Marine and survived severe burns in an underground explosion as a telephone cable splicer in the early ’70s—rejoined his family at his home in Whitestone, Queens. But perhaps not for too long. Engine Co. 65’s senior man—”a father figure who takes care of the junior guys,” says company captain Matt Murtagh—is counting the days until he can get back to work. “Nothing,” his mother says, “will stop him.”