Twelve years ago, Benjamin Clark saved hundreds of lives in the South Tower.
But he wasn’t a firefighter or a cop. Michael Daly on what we can learn from the courageous chef
AT midnight every September 11, Elsie Clark hangs a banner on the fence alongside the front-yard memorial to her 39-year-old son who perished at the World Trade Center.
The son was not a firefighter or a police officer. He was a chef.
But a morning that began with him preparing meals for the people at the Fiduciary Trust Company suddenly led to him becoming as brave as any first responder. A Fiduciary official would later credit Clark with saving hundreds of lives as he made sure that everyone in his department, along with everybody else in the company’s 96th floor offices in the South Tower, was safely exiting the building. He then paused on the 78th floor to assist a woman in a wheelchair. “He could have gotten out,” his mother says. “Everybody else did.”
The mother would ascribe some of his courage to him having been a marine for eight years.
“My son was a marine, so you know he wasn’t going to leave anybody behind,” she says.
More than a marine, he was Benjamin Clark, since his earliest years ever ready to lend a hand to whoever might need it. He had only to see a neighbour in need of assistance big or small and he would exclaim, “I’ll help! I’ll help!”
“He was always there to help,” his mother says.
Upon seeing others suddenly in the most mortal danger, his everyday decency had become uncommon courage. A chef known for his fabulous meatloaf and for remembering everybody’s name and favourite meals had proven as courageous as if he had stepped off an New York fire department rig.
“A hero,” his mother says. “My hero.”
“There were a lot of heroes that day,” Elsie Clark says.
“There was a lot of times I stood and cried on that corner, but there was a lot of support.”
The enormity of Benjamin Clark’s sacrifice is made apparent by the photos of his own five children displayed in his mother’s home. He had been happily married to a wonderful woman, LaShawn Clark, and he had been the happiest of dads.
“His wife and the five kids were his life,” Elsie says. “If my son could have walked around with those kids in his pocket every day, he would have.”
She says her grandson, Taj, had awakened at 4 am on 9/11 as his father was getting ready for work.
“Taj woke up and told his dad, ‘Don’t go to work today. I don’t have a good feeling today,’” she says.
Benjamin Clark had told Taj to go back to sleep, as it was the first day of school and he would need his rest. The father then set off for his job, arriving before dawn at his kitchen.
Elsie Clark was at her own job as a school crossing guard at 7:30am. She greeted the youngsters as they returned after the summer holiday in their back-to school clothes on a beautiful morning. A man then burst from the school to tell her that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
As evening approached, she stood in front of her house and gazed up the street her son always walked when coming from the subway. He did not appear.
More than 1,200 people attended his memorial service at the Marriott in downtown Brooklyn. They included people who were alive only because he had urged them on to safety.
“My pastor said he had never seen a memorial like that,” Elsie remembers.
She held a much smaller ceremony in the front yard, and a minister blessed the permanent brick and stone memorial. She began the ritual of hanging the banner at midnight every Sept 11. Until her retirement two years ago, she spent the anniversaries of 9/11 at her post as a crossing guard, making sure children got safely to school.
“There was a lot of times I stood and cried on that corner, but there was a lot of support,” she says.
She watched youngsters toddle toward their futures just as her son had.
“Always smiling, always happy,” she says of him. “Always at the top of the class.”
Her husband, also Benjamin Clark and an army veteran, never recovered from the loss of his son. He died suddenly in 2006, as if the burden of his grief had become too much to bear.
“He wasn’t sick or anything,” she says, “He just couldn’t give [the son] up.”
She can attest that there is no closure when you lose a child.
“It is not something you ever get over,” she says. “It’s something that stays with you the rest of your life.”
At the approach of this week’s 12th anniversary, she sat on the porch overlooking the front-yard memorial and heard four gunshots. She learned that somebody had fired at a man pushing a stroller and ended up killing a one-year-old boy.
The gunman was later arrested and said he wished he had changed the course of his life back in elementary school, before he took what he called “the wrong path.”
He might have if he had followed the example not of the fake tough guys who join gangs but a genuine tough guy such as Benjamin Clark, who went through school and served in the military and went to work every day and was a loving husband and father, who was another kind of hero long before he became one on 9/11.
Elsie knows there was been talk of naming a Brooklyn street after the rapper Biggie Smalls. She stood outside her home on Saratoga Avenue on Tuesday saying that her own street could rightly be named Benjamin Keefe Clark Avenue.
“Just this block,” she said.
A neighbour across the street affirmed that the honour was well deserved, and not just because of how Benjamin Clark died, but also how he lived.
“He’d never let me pick up a snow shovel,” she said.
Michael Daly is a special correspondent with Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He was previously a columnist with the New York Daily News and a staff writer with New York magazine. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2002 and has received numerous awards.
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