Thursday, January 13, 2011

Modern-day heroes

by Brittany Geragotelis

A few weeks ago, Matt and I were driving around NYC, picking stuff up for the new apartment and we were listening to a podcast called "This American Life." The show chooses topics, such as "rest stops at midnight" or "backed into a corner," and then they provide interviews and stories to the listener. It's a great show that brings a lot of insight into many different topics.

Anyhoo, we were listening to this one podcast that seemed to be about the modern-day hero and what makes someone do heroic things. They interviewed three different people, including a woman and a man who'd jumped into a bull ring to save another woman being trampled; a man who witnessed a car accident just outside his house and pulled four teenage boys out of the burning car to save them before it blew up; and finally, a man who'd jumped onto the train tracks in NYC after a stranger had fallen. In all the stories, these questions were posed to them: "Why did you do it?" "What was going through your head at the time?" "Were you worried about your own safety at any point?"

The first two people said that they couldn't remember what they were thinking at the time and that their instincts had just kicked in. That it was their first reaction to go and help. They also said they felt they had to help, stating that they were sure that anyone else would have done the same. The last man, the one who jumped in front of the train, he had a different story.

Wesley Autrey was an out-of-work construction worker who was on the platform that day with his two young daughters. And when he saw a stranger near him suffer from a seizure and then fall onto the tracks, he jumped into action, leaving his kids up above and jumping down t0 try and help the man. He tried to pick the man up, who was still unconscious at the time, but he couldn't lift his limp body. Then the train started to come. It was 50 feet away. 40 feet, 30 feet, 20 feet. And then it was 10 feet away. So what did Wesley do?

He pushed the young man down in between the two tracks and then placed his body on top of his just in time for the train to pass overhead. The podcast mentioned that Wesley could feel the brush of the train on his calves and his beanie had grease marks when he got out from under the train later. As the train was still overhead, the young man woke up and asked Wesley, "What happened?" Wesley told him that he'd had a seizure, fallen onto the tracks and that he'd tried to get him out. The young man asked Wesley if they were dead, and he responded, "No. We're under the train."

Of course, by this time in the story, I was bawling, moved to tears by this man's heroics. When they asked Wesley why he'd done it, he said that he'd gotten the idea in his head, "You can do this." And he believed it. See, apparently Wesley had been held up at gunpoint many years before this and when the guy pulled the trigger, the gun malfunctioned and didn't go off. Ever since, Wesley's felt as if he got a second chance, and had always wondered why he'd been spared. So, his saving the young man that day was actually what he saw as his duty. The reason he was still alive.

photo credit: Entertainment Weekly
Since this podcast, I've been thinking a lot about whether heroism is instinctual or if it's in an individual person's character. And of course I've been wondering, if the circumstances were to arise, would do the same? Would my instincts kick in and I'd just automatically go help someone in need without concern for myself?

Well, last night, I feel like I got my first chance to jump to action....

...and I failed.

As I was leaving work, I was walking across 23rd street in a rush to get to a meeting, when I watched a young blind man attempting to walk across the street with his seeing eye dog pulling him along. Another man had pointed him in the right direction, but as I watched, he began to veer into oncoming traffic. And I just stood there—panicking. Too late I realized that I should try to sprint across the street to help him, but by the time my feet started to move, he was called back toward the sidewalk and ended up being fine. But I felt some major guilt last night over the fact that my heroic instincts didn't kick in fast enough. And I'm still pretty disappointed that I didn't automatically hop right into action. Then again, maybe this was a test. Something to make me more aware for next time?

How about you? Have you ever done something heroic? Do you think you would if faced with a situation like those above? Let me know in the comments below!


Oh, and P.S.? The construction worker who so selflessly saved the young man? He ended up on Time magazine's 100 List of Most Influential People in 2007. He also received a lifetime subscription to Playboy, a new beanie (the beanie cap that got smudged under the train had the playboy bunny logo on it), and additional Playboy merchandise. Wesley also earned the title "Hero of Harlem" and appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," where he was presented with a $5,000 GAP gift card, tickets and backstage passes to a Beyoncé concert, season tickets to the New Jersey Nets, a signed jersey from Jason Kidd, a brand new Jeep Patriot, two years' worth of car insurance from Progressive and a one-year free parking pass for use anywhere in NYC. His daughters were also given new computers that would be updated every three years until they graduate from high school.