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From the archives: Benny Hooper saved in 'Miracle'

Benny Hooper, after being rescued from a well

Benny Hooper, after being rescued from a well in Manorville. (May 17, 1957) Credit: Tom Maguire

Editor's note: The following story ran on the 30th anniversary of the "Miracle of Manorville," the rescue of 7-year old Benny Hooper, who in 1957 had spent 24-hours trapped in a water well 21 feet deep.

This story originally appeared in Newsday May 17, 1987

Construction workers who had finished a day's labor kept digging through Manorville's sand and clay all night without sleep or pay, some of them refusing to stop until they collapsed.  The national media  - more than 100 reporters  -   gathered behind a ranch house on Ryerson Avenue.  And evangelist Billy Graham interrupted his sermon at Madison Square Garden to pray for little Benny Hooper, who was trapped in a well.

It was May 16, 1957, and a good part of the nation was sharing a nightmare 24 hours long and 21 feet deep.  It took an uncommon alliance of volunteer spirit, excavation expertise, and an oxygen tube to save the youngster, who spent all day and all night wedged in a one-foot-wide dirt shaft.

His rescue  -  the "Miracle of Manorville"  -  came at 7:30 p.m., 30 years ago today.  That anniversary mildly surprised even Hooper, who is 37.

"I knew it was getting close, but I don't think about it too much any more," he said Friday, during a break from his job as a mechanic and foreman-trainee for LILCO at its Port Jefferson station.

There are few reminders left.  Ben Hooper Sr. died 15 years ago, and his wife, Betty, settled in Virginia Beach, Va. with their daughter, Wendy Cook.

Mike Stiriz, the Patchogue contractor who supervised the exhausting rescue effort without charge, has died.  So has Dr. Joseph Kris, who ordered an oxygen tube dropped to the boy  -  an order that was later recognized as vital.  Kris was widely criticized later, however, for submitting a bill  -  although Stiriz and other members of the rescue party supported the doctor.  Sam Woodson, the Riverhead construction worker who pulled Benny out to the cheers of a crowd of 500, is retired in Florida.

No landmark identifies the former well.  In its place is a swimming pool, installed by the home's subsequent owner.

Hooper lives in Ridge with his wife, Lorrie, and their 9-year-old son, Ben III (B.J.).  They are preparing for the wedding of Dawn, 21, Lorrie's daughter from a previous marriage, who will be escorted down the aisle by her stepfather.  Hooper also plans to attend the 20th reunion of his Center Moriches High School class in August.

Such trappings of an orderly adult life had not seemed likely prospects for Hooper while 200 people were digging a hole parallel to the well and carving a tunnel to reach him.  "They did a hell of a job," Hooper said.

John Rambo, of Wading River, was too exhausted to notice.  It had been his shovel that inched closest to Benny, and it was Rambo who heard the youngster breathing.  "I cried for a week after that," Rambo, now 68, said this week.  "Even now  -  I was just telling my doctor that one night I woke up thinking of that accident and I had an awful time breathing. "

Reporters who covered the story said the helpless little boy, the anguished parents, the agonizingly timeconsuming rescue struck an emotional chord.  United Press ranked it seventh among the top 10 stories of the year.

Television informed a nationwide audience, which included Mike Molinaro, the neighbor boy with whom Benny had been running when he fell.

"We were playing army, like 7 or 8year-olds are known to do, and we saw a piece of pipe that resembled a gun," said Molinaro, now a material manager for Grumman.  "We started racing for it.  Since he was long-legged and skinny as a beanpole, he got there first. "

After that, Molinaro eyed the scene from his upstairs window and on TV.  "My mother kept me in the house.  Reporters were knocking at our front window," Molinaro said last week from Remsenburg, where he lives with his wife and two children.

Until they met by chance last summer, Molinaro hadn't seen Hooper in 10 years.  Like Hooper, he doesn't think about the accident much any more.

During a few heady months after the rescue, Hooper was offered a screen test, appeared on television with Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan, met some New York Giants baseball players, and shook hands with Billy Graham.

But his parents eventually built a fence around their house to discourage reporters.  At the same time, old friends said that the Hoopers had become aloof.  After a while, Ben wished he had never heard of Steve Allen or Ed Sullivan  -  and that his father had never built that well.

"Back about 20 years ago, I felt that way," Hooper said.  "Now it doesn't affect me either way. "

Now it is a memory unearthed only occasionally, as when a reporter calls.  Or when something else brings it up.  Rambo  -  who was photographed at visiting Hooper at his Bayview Hospital bedside on May 18, 1957  -  recalls one such time: "I'm paralyzed now.  I was in a plane crash in 1976," he said.  "When I was in the hospital, Benny came to see me." 

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