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The unlikely bond forged on 9/11 between MTA driver and NYPD sergeant

“He looked at me and asked, ‘Are you Italian?’ And he says, ‘I’m a paisano too. You want to help out?’”

nypd sgt and bus driver 9/11

New York Daily News, Twitter

By Larry McShane
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The worst of circumstances made them best of friends: A city bus driver and a Harlem cop, their paths randomly intersecting on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Their dramatic introduction came as MTA veteran Nick Rotondo sat behind the wheel of his M11 bus, heading uptown on his daily morning route. When he reached W. 100th St., a stranger in uniform frantically flagged him down: NYPD Sgt. Vincent Benvenuto, working out of the 24th Precinct.

Twenty years down the road, the now-inseparable pals recall every detail of the morning where their chance meeting delivered a small ray of light on the darkest of New York days.

“Forget about it,” recalled Rotondo. “It was probably the saddest, bittersweet, happiest day of my life. I met Vinnie, and he’s one of my dearest friends to this day.”

The smoke billowing from the doomed World Trade Center was visible when Benvenuto began conscripting bus drivers to ditch their fares and start delivering police officers, firefighters and medical supplies to what became known as Ground Zero. He recalled arguing with the first reticent driver, even threatening to put the bus jockey in handcuffs.

“I got this guy, saying ‘No, no, no,’” recalled Benvenuto. “I said, ‘We’ve got your bus. We own it.’”

Bus No. 2 found a very cooperative Rotondo, ferrying a full load of riders.

Benvenuto was soon shouting at the passengers to exit the bus — ASAP. By this time, a second hijacked plane had struck the South Tower. The sergeant was blunt: He wanted Rotondo to turn his bus around and head back toward the lower Manhattan maelstrom, a request delivered with an unexpected query.

“He looked at me and asked, ‘Are you Italian?’” recounted the mustachioed Rotondo, now 60, who nodded yes. “And he says, ‘I’m a paisano too. I really need you. You want to help out?’”

Benvenuto recalled things a little differently: “I saw him and thought ‘Now I got the guy from the Super Mario brothers?’”

Both agreed on this: In the middle of the insanity, Rotondo introduced himself as “Brad Pitt’s brother, Arm Pitt.”

Nearly 24 hours later, Rotondo finished the longest shift of his career after some two dozen runs between lower Manhattan, the 24th Precinct and its neighboring FDNY Battalion 11 of Engine 76 & Ladder 22.

His first passengers were two police officers and a firefighter, heading south in an eerie silence as the towers burned and crumbled.

“Two guys sitting behind me, one standing by the front window,” he said. “Looking downtown, no words, no nothing. It was like a Hitchcock movie to me. So scary, so quiet.”

By the end of the day, the two strangers had forged a lasting friendship amid the horrors all around them.

“Me and Nick are the best of friends ever since,” said Benvenuto. “He actually sang at my wedding in 2004. He has a group called ‘Armonia’ — it’s Italian for harmony.”

The relief effort was no one-shot deal for Rotondo. He worked for 22 days straight as a downtown courier, and eventually spent six post-attack months doing the same. Early on, Benvenuto offered the driver a thank you for his efforts and shared a cellphone number.

“He said to keep in touch,” recalled Rotondo. “It felt like an instant bond with this guy. His kindness was an instant bond. And we started calling each other regularly.”

Rotondo never mentioned it, but Benvenuto recalled that his fast friend developed some 9/11-related respiratory problems after his repeated runs.

Benvenuto, after retiring from the NYPD in 2007, joined the police force in Hartford, Conn. Rotondo departed the MTA in 2016, and keeps busy with an assortment of pursuits: Performing as “Nick the Balloonatic” for kids’ parties, writing an illustrated kid’s book about 9/11 titled “I Am a First Responder,” even taking a stab at standup comedy.

The retired driver now has a pleasant Sept. 11 memory to go with the terror of 2001: His granddaughter was born on that date in 2014.

Benvenuto recalls Nick’s 50th birthday, when the guests all greeted him while wearing fake mustaches. And the link between the two strangers, forged in the middle of 9/11, remains just as strong two decades later.

“He calls me just to chat,” said Rotondo. “Twenty years, and I cherish it. I always tell him, ‘Vinnie, I love you like a brother. But I would give you up to have those towers back.’”

NEXT: 9/11: Reflections at 20 years

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