Posts Tagged ‘heroism’

Subway heroes

November 9, 2012

Talking about runaway trains in CoPhi  has reminded me again of that amazing subway hero who thought nothing of risking himself to save a stranger. My students had not heard of him. The Stoics were right, fame and notoriety are but fleeting wisps. “See how soon everything is forgotten,” meditated Marcus Aurelius. “The only lasting fame is oblivion.” Our largest deeds are destined to be forgotten, sooner than we think. Sic transit gloria indeed.

So, as a tribute to forgotten heroes and an inspiration to us all, especially those who told me yesterday they’d not be willing to pull the lever to divert the train and avoid killing five innocent (though oblivious) track loiterers– that would be “playing God” (though the job does seem available)– here again is what happened on January 2, 2007:

Wesley Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.

Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time.

Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease. Mr. Autrey heard onlookers’ screams. “We’re O.K. down here,” he yelled, “but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.” He heard cries of wonder, and applause…

“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

It was spectacular, of course. Unlike Philippa Foot’s hypothetical thought experiment, this moment from real life involved a serious risk of death to the Decider. His choice was not to “let nature take its course” (as someone said in class yesterday) but to be a positive force of nature himself.

He was asked recently if he’d do it again. “Yes!” But he wouldn’t mind an endorsement deal from the sandwich company. What he did bears no comparison to what’s-his-name’s Subway Diet.

Wesley has indeed been an inspiration, with a growing cadre of imitators. There have been subsequent subway heroes, including one Delroy Simmonds.  “Everybody is making me out to be some sort of superhero,” Simmonds said. “I’m just a normal person. Anybody in that situation should have done what I did.”

But should‘s not would.

Subway hero

February 17, 2012

In CoPhi yesterday we were talking about courage, and how we don’t really know what we’re capable of doing until we find ourselves in a crisis situation. I recalled the real-life (not the 30 Rock) “subway hero,” Wesley Autrey. On January 2, 2007,

Mr. Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.

Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time.

Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease. Mr. Autrey heard onlookers’ screams. “We’re O.K. down here,” he yelled, “but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.” He heard cries of wonder, and applause…

“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

Incredible but true. The point I wanted to make: neither a Utilitarian nor a Deontologist would have had time to ponder a decision like that. Was it even a decision? No, it was an instantaneous, impulsive, selfless reaction based on a long-prepared disposition to do what feels right. You don’t get that from sitting around in a bar talking about what you’d do if this or that scenario were to arise. Woody Allen in Manhattan says he’d never have to face the situation of whether to risk his own life to save a drowning person since he, Woody, doesn’t swim. Heroism is not hypothetical.

You don’t develop such a disposition merely by sitting in Philosophy class either, reading Bentham and Mill and Kant, meditating on First Principles, or tabulating the hedonic calculus. Doing those things might help some of us think about how to build the character and will to do the right thing, but this really goes back to David Hume: it’s not reason, in the end, but fellow-feeling and a sense of connectedness that clinches our altruism. We become the sort of person who performs heroically in a crisis by performing countless repeated small acts of kindness.  Generosity of spirit is made, not born.

And reason, if it’s smart, notices.