Guest Opinion: American heroes emerge from tragedy
Amid the storm of awful news lately just from a single U.S. city — the fatal shooting of 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, the death of a toddler snatched by an alligator at a nearby Disney World resort, the killing of a popular former contestant on The Voice — it's worth remembering that America is filled with everyday heroes who inspire hope at times of tragedy.
Selfless people such as Imran Yousuf, 24, who was working as a bouncer at the Pulse nightclub when the attack happened early Sunday. Yousuf saw people frozen in terror next to a closed door that could lead them outside to safety, if only someone would open it. No one was moving, so Yousuf “just reacted,” leaping up and putting himself at risk of being shot to open the door and get people out. He guessed that 60 to 70 people scrambled through the door to safety. Some people called him a hero, but Yousuf wrote on Facebook that as a former U.S. Marine and Afghanistan War veteran, "I honestly believe I reacted by instinct.”
People such as Kyle Carpenter, who was a 21-year-old Marine private in Afghanistan when he jumped on a grenade and saved the life of a fellow Marine. Carpenter lost an eye and most of his teeth, and suffered brain damage so severe it took him two years to regain his ability to walk. “I’m still here and kicking, and I have all my limbs, so you’ll never hear me complain,” said Carpenter, the youngest living Medal of Honor winner.
And people such as a security guard named David Tirado, who was on his way home last Friday when a man waiting for an uptown-bound train suddenly collapsed and toppled onto the tracks at a New York City subway station. The man landed with a loud thump and lay unconscious. An incoming train was two stations away. The third rail was live.
In less time than it takes to read this, Tirado and two other men jumped down onto the tracks to help the fallen commuter. They managed to get the man upright and then handed him up to more people, who laid him down on the platform. Then the people above helped the three men on the tracks climb up and out of danger, shortly before the train pulled into the station.
In a video of the incident, you can see the rescue of the man and the rescue of the rescuers, and the man lying on the platform out of harm’s way. And if you look closely, you can see two of the rescuers leaning protectively over the man, one with his hand on the man’s hip and the other holding the man’s hand and reassuring him. “Buddy, you’re going to be fine,” the rescuer was saying, witness Sumeja Tulic told The New York Times. “This was an additional layer of goodness,” Tulic said. “It was beautiful to see.”
New York City has a reputation as a hard-hearted place where the fittest survive, the weak get pushed aside, and no one cares about strangers. But you don’t have to scratch very deep to find the kind of spontaneous kindness and self-sacrifice that Americans everywhere pride themselves on.
“If someone is down and out, you have to help the person, because you have to remember that could be you lying down there and you’re going to need the help,”Tirado told Gothamist.com.
Last week's subway rescue brought back memories of an even more extraordinary act of heroism nearly a decade ago. In 2007, Wesley Autrey was taking his two young daughters home before work when another man collapsed and fell onto the subway tracks. In an instant, Autrey jumped down and pressed the man down as a train rolled into the station and over them in the track bed, so close that it smudged Autrey's cap with grease.
Autrey was celebrated as a hero for saving the man’s life, but he said it was no big deal. “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” he said. “I did what I felt was right.”
Funny, that’s what people usually say when they act quickly and almost without thinking to put their own lives at risk to save someone else. No one knows how they’ll react in a moment like this until it arrives. What people do in a few seconds can make the difference between life and death, sometimes their own.
Most rescues aren’t nearly as dramatic as these, but they’re heroic even so, and the thread that ties them together is the remarkable human impulse to help. After a week of relentlessly depressing news, that's an impulse worth celebrating.