Ben Hooper doesn’t know for sure if the Rev. Billy Graham helped save his life, but he suspects the prayers of the famous Southern Baptist preacher may have played a role in the “Miracle of Manorville” six decades ago.
Hooper, then a child of 7, was trapped for 24 hours more than 18 feet below the surface of the family home’s backyard in a 1-foot-wide well shaft, with sand and dirt collapsing on him and a crew of men tunneling desperately to free him.
His plight on May 16 and 17, 1957 — in that age before around-the-clock radio and television reports, much less live, at-the-scene coverage — was front-page news and made headlines across the country.
At Madison Square Garden, Graham interrupted his sermon during his first major crusade in New York City to ask the audience to pray for little Benny Hooper, the boy whose life was on the line in Manorville.
On May 17 at 7:40 p.m. — almost exactly one day after Benny had vanished inside the hole while playing “army” with a friend — he was lifted out of the well alive.
“Miracle! Miracle!” shouted many in the crowd of several hundred who had stood vigil at the house on Ryerson Avenue, as others cried, cheered, prayed and gave thanks.
Days afterward, Graham sent an emissary to give Benny a Bible, inscribed with a personal message. And that August, Benny, his parents and his little sister met the evangelist known as “America’s pastor” at the Garden for a special visit after his sermon.
Hooper’s memories of the meeting are vague, as he was just a boy nearly 61 years ago. But he recalls Graham as a tall, imposing presence.
“All I know is he was a big man,” Hooper, now 68, said Wednesday outside his home in Calverton as he thumbed through a large scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs chronicling his rescue.
As for Graham, Hooper said, “He’s in heaven now. The place where he wanted to be.”
The odyssey in his backyard gripped much of the nation’s attention during the 24 hours his life was in the balance.
At one point, the boy’s doctor declared it was “improbable” he was still alive. A New York tabloid blared the front-page banner headline, “The Boy in the Well: ‘No Sign of Life.’ ” A priest arrived and about 12:30 p.m. on the 17th administered last rites near the well.
Hooper recalled Wednesday that he and his friend had been playing when they spied a pipe that looked like a machine gun. They raced to get it, and Benny got there first, reaching a big pile of dirt where his father had been digging the well.
“I slid like a baseball player slides, went right over the pile, into the hole,” he said.
He was trapped down below, wedged in the narrow well, sand collapsing on him, his feet soaked in a foot of water. He tried to claw his way out, but couldn’t. He still has sand burns on the insides of his arms, he said.
About an hour later, he said, he passed out.
Rescuers tried frantically to reach him. His father “put down a shovel with a rope, but I couldn’t hang on,” Hooper recalled.
Apparently, part of what kept him alive was an oxygen pocket that had formed from a coat he had draped over his head, he said. Dirt was falling on the coat.
Benny’s physician, Dr. Joseph Kris, ordered an oxygen tube dropped down to the boy for him to clench between his teeth and breathe through, to keep him alive.
Before long, rescuers realized they could not dig straight down to the boy because the sides would collapse and smother him. So they dug a parallel pit several feet away, and then dug a horizontal tunnel to reach him. They had to use wood supports to keep the pit and tunnel from collapsing.
One of the rescuers finally clawed his way to Benny and yanked him out. “Still breathing through clenched teeth, the boy was brought to the ground at 7:40 p.m. in a stretcher, his shivering body wrapped in an army blanket,” Newsday reported.
The local police chief, known as a tough cop, “fell down and cried when he saw that the boy was breathing,” the article said.
Benny was taken to a hospital in Mastic Beach, and within two hours felt well enough to be complaining that the doctors would not let him get out of bed, the newspaper said.
When Benny met Graham a few months later, Newsday reported that “the usually bubbling youngster was as shy as many another 8-year-old might have been in the presence of the dynamic evangelist.”
Graham prayed with the family and asked Benny if he wanted to become a minister. “The boy shyly hid behind his mother and refused to answer,” the newspaper reported.
Inside the Bible that Benny had received in May, Graham had written, “God Bless you Benny. We have prayed for you and are looking forward for you to visit us before long. You must dedicate your life to Christ and live for Him.”
Hooper, a retired longtime mechanic at the former LILCO power plant in Port Jefferson, said Wednesday he is not an overly religious person, but he does have spiritual beliefs.
“Yeah, I’m on the good side,” he said.
His rescue, as he sees it, was almost inexplicable. “I look back to the equipment they had . . . it was a miracle, how they did it.”
Asked if he thought Graham’s prayers had helped it to happen, he said, “More than likely, yes.”