(WJET) – A student at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania, was suspended from the school’s hockey team after security footage at an Irish pub showed him pushing a disabled woman’s wheelchair down a staircase while she was in the bathroom.
Now, the young woman who owned that wheelchair is speaking out on the incident, which gained national attention after the footage went viral on Twitter.
“It was scary,” Sydney Benes told Nexstar’s WJET. “I was not prepared for that many people to see the incident, to see me, to see my story, to see what happened.”
Benes, 22, lost her legs in 2021 in a car accident. She had been trapped in her burning car while waiting for rescue crews, and suffered third-degree burns on 34% of her body, mostly from the waist down.
“I ended up losing my feet due to the burns and then I ended up getting a bad infection from the crash,” Benes explained.
The infection was so bad, doctors were forced to amputate her legs, with the left leg going above her knee. She spent three months in the hospital recovering from the crash.
“There were some days that I just did not want to get out of that bed. I did not want to sit up. I didn’t want to get in the wheelchair. I didn’t want to practice getting out of bed,” Benes recalled. “There were mornings that I’d wake up and, man, I’d just be heartbroken that it wasn’t a dream, you know?”
Benes loved playing soccer, and played for Mercyhurst Prep.
But now, with the help of prosthetics, she’s working to do something many of us take for granted.
“I went from learning to walk on one, to learning to walk on both. I’m now walking almost without any help,” Benes said with pride.
Although Benes’ life was forever changed, she’s determined to continue doing the things most 22-year-olds do, including meeting friends for a night out, like she did at Sullivan’s Irish Pub on Saturday.
But that night — when found her wheelchair at the bottom of the staircase at Sullivan’s — she experienced a new level of heartache and disappointment.
“All that was going through my head was, ‘Man, I hope this was an accident, I hope that this wasn’t on purpose,'” Benes recalled.
But it wasn’t an accident.
Security footage from inside the bar shows Carson Briere and another student-athlete at Mercyhurst University playing with Benes’ wheelchair, then pushing it down the stairs.
“The head security guard had went and saw the one kid and the hockey player and made him come apologize to me, which wasn’t very sincere,” she said.
Both men have been permanently banned from the pub. They were also suspended from their college sports teams, along with another student seen in the video, according to Mercyhurst.
“I have to go through so much and people treat my stuff like this? The stuff that I use to get around? I have nothing else,” Benes said.
Unfortunately, Benes said her experience is common for disabled people.
Now that the security footage has gone viral on social media, she wants to use her newfound platform to advocate for others.
“I can use it to show people what we go through, what we have to deal with, and how we wish to be treated,” she said. “We are treated like things, like second class citizens, we’re not treated with respect.”
Benes hopes more people can learn from her situation, including the students responsible.
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“I really hope that maybe the boys will actually learn something from this and realize that what they did was despicable,” Benes said.
Benes also confirmed that she is looking to press charges against both individuals seen in the video.