I made a new friend at the Winter Olympics today, and I want you to meet him. His name is Ben Shapiro, and he’s doing some work here for NBC.
Ben had some rare free time, so he came up to the mountains to see bobsled for the first time. He had no idea where he was going. NBC 5 Photojournalist Nefty Gonzalez and I were headed to the track, so we invited Ben to tag along with us.
Along the way, Ben mentioned that it was his birthday. I lit up and wished him a happy one. Then he began to share his story. This was not his real birthday. It was the day Ben was reborn.
Eleven years ago, Ben was driving home early in the morning. It was Connecticut in the winter. The road was slick. Ben lost control of his vehicle, hit a bridge pillar, smashed through a fence and rolled down an embankment. That wasn’t the worst part. He landed upside down in a river. Just for the record, there was no alcohol involved.
The woman on the road behind Ben called 911. First responders from the City of Hamden rushed to the scene, but it was half an hour before they were able to pull Ben out of the frigid water. Half an hour. He appeared lifeless.
Paramedics raced Ben to nearby Yale New Haven Hospital. Slowly, very slowly, they warmed his body. Ben woke up. Doctors later told him that it was the icy water that saved him, preserving his organs and brain. Cosmetic surgeons repaired Ben’s shattered face, and over time he made a full recovery.
As we stood by the track watching Olympians rocket by, Ben asked if I would take a few pictures of him. Of course. He opened his jacket to reveal a shirt from the Hamden Fire Department. He wears it on every “birthday” to thank the people who gave him a second chance at life.
Just moments later, the alarm on Ben’s phone sounded. It was 1:44 a.m. back home, the exact time he careened off the road back in 2007. He told me he normally pops the cork on a bottle of champagne, but on this day his first visit to a bobsled track would suffice.
Ben told me he shares his story with anyone who will listen to honor those who saved him, as well as first responders everywhere. And he wants us all to understand how precious and fleeting life can be. Thank you, Ben.
I meet a lot of extraordinary people at the Olympics. Most of them are athletes. But the story that will likely stay with me the longest is that of a guy I met on a crowded shuttle bus. And if I’ve managed to share Ben’s message with just one other person, my assignment here is complete.