Dec 14, 2010

I Need a Hero

Is there such a thing as a purely selfless deed--one with no hidden motives whatsoever? Walter F. Rutkowski from the Carnegie Hero Fund spends his days measuring good deeds by some very stringent criteria--such as risking your life "to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person." We got in touch with three of these bona fide heroes to ask what went through their minds the moment they leapt into action. The heroes: Lora Shrake (who squared off with a 950-pound bull); Bill Pennell (who repeatedly dove into a burning car for survivors); and Wesley Autrey (who jumped in front of a subway train to save a fellow rider).


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Jad Abumrad: Hey, this is Radiolab, I'm Jad Abumrad.

Robert Krulwich: I'm Robert Krulwich.

Jad: Our topic today is-

Robert: Goodness.

Jad: Goodness, selflessness.

Robert: We've done the math. The math leaves me a little on the cold side.


Jad: I wonder why. You know what? Forget the math. Forget it.

Robert: Let's go to the people who do the deeds.

Jad: People who do amazingly brave and heroic things. No math required.

Robert: Maybe find out, I don't know.

Jad: What makes them different than the rest of us.

Robert: Yes.

[phone ringing]

Jad: That question led us-

[phone ringing]

Walter: Walter Rutkowski.

Jad: -to a guy named Walter Rutkowski.

Walter: I'm the executive director and secretary of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission.

Jad: Cool. Well, thanks for doing this. Can you just give us a little background on the Hero Fund? What is the Carnegie Hero Fund?

Walter: The Carnegie Hero Fund is a private operating foundation that was established by Andrew Carnegie in 1904, and what we do is recognize civilian heroism throughout the United States and Canada by giving an award called the Carnegie Medal, and accompanying the Carnegie Medal is a financial grant.

Jad: How much?

Walter: Currently the amount is $5,000.

Jad: Wow, and how do you guys choose your heroes?

Walter: We judge the heroic acts against a list of requirements.

Robert: Then, you have to have some kind of definition of hero, which includes some and excludes others.

Walter: Yes.

Jad: Perfect.

Walter: The basic definition, which is a civilian-

Jad: One.

Walter: -meaning no military, who voluntarily-

Jad: Two.

Walter: -leaves a point of safety-

Jad: Three.

Walter: -to risk his own life, or her own life-

Jad: Four.

Walter: -to an extraordinary degree-

Jad: Five.

Walter: -to save, or to attempt to save the life of another human.

Jad: Six. How about seven, why?

Robert: Can you read that one more time?

Walter: Okay, I wasn't reading. That just came from memory.

Robert: Oh, okay.

Jad: What is it that happens in a person's mind at that pivotal moment when they decide to voluntarily leave a point of safety and risk their life to an extraordinary degree-

Walter: To save the life of another human?

Jad: That's what we wanted to know. Should we just jump in?

Walter: Okay.

Jad: The first one we have on our list is Lora Shrake.

Walter: Okay. That's file number, 73546, and the award number is 8,005.

Lora Shrake: I am Lora Shrake. I am from Mattoon, Illinois, and I currently live in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Jad: Wow. Lora spoke with our producer, Tim Howard.

Tim Howard: We're going back a little bit here.

Lora: Yes. 15 years.

Walter: Back in the mid '90s.

Lora: 1995.

Walter: She was a 21-year-old college student.

Lora: I was driving through the country, and I saw a woman getting mauled by a bull in a pasture.


Walter: She stopped to see what was going on.

Lora: Jumped out and started yelling at her to see what I could do. The woman was on the ground and the bull was-

Walter: 950-pound Jersey bull.

Lora: Tossing her in the air and back on the ground. She was clearly struggling.

Tim: Where were you?

Lora: I was right on the other side of the fence, but the fence was electric.

Jad: Here's the moment that we find fascinating. At this point, Lora can either go forward through thousands of volts of electricity toward an angry bull that will likely maul her too, or she can stay safe.

Lora: I went ahead and just climbed through the fence, and I don't remember ever feeling the electricity.

Jad: She says by the time she got through-

Lora: Crazily enough.

Jad: A neighbor had shown up and threw her a piece of pipe.

Lora: Maybe about two feet long.

Walter: She approached the woman-

Lora: Who was still conscious. The whole time she's yelling at me, "Hit the bull in the face as hard as you can and don't stop."

Walter: Ms. Shrake went up to the bull and beat it repeatedly with this two-foot length of tubing.

Lora: I think it distracted the bull enough, where she was able to get out from under him, and as soon as we were outside the fence, looking back into the pasture, the bull was literally right there at the fence.

Walter: Kicked the ground a few times and snorted.

Lora: [chuckles] He was not happy.

Jab: To our question.

Tim: When you were there at that fence, and you had the choice to either stay put or to go through it, what was going through your mind? Was there a calculation there?

Lora: No, I can't really say that.

Tim: Did you weigh your options or anything like that?

Lora: I did not. No. It was just, "Here's the problem. Here's what I need to do." and something needed to happen.

Tim: There's no choice moment?

Lora: Not that I recall. No. If nobody came to this woman's rescue, she would die.

Jad: Unfortunately, this is the usual explanation, says Walter. No explanation.

Walter: I couldn't stand there and not do anything. I was compelled to act.

Lora: I didn't really take the time to think about what else could happen.

William David Pennell: I can't say I ever really thought of my own life at that time--

Jad: Okay, we just jumped ahead because we thought we'd try again. That's the voice of the next Carnegie Hero that Walter told us about.

Robert: Yes, William David Pennell,-

William: My name is William Pennell--

Robert: -who was the 8,362nd person to receive the Carnegie medal.

Jad: Our producer Lynn Levy tracked him down.

Lynn Levy: Bill, can you hear me?

William: Yes, I can hear you.

Robert: William David Pennell was 37 years old at the time of his heroic act.

Lynn: Was it 1999?

William: Yes, it was early in the morning.

Robert: 3:19 AM in a small town near Pittsburgh

William: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Robert: Monongahela, Pennsylvania.

William: We was in bed sleeping and my wife heard a loud crash. I actually didn't hear it, but my one dog was [unintelligible 00:05:41] . Right away, I ran down there.

Robert: Mr. Pennell went outside his house, there was a very bad automobile accident. A car crashed head on into a utility pole.

William: Flames was rippling up the windshield out from under the hood.

Robert: He responded to the scene wearing only sweatpants.

William: No shoes or shirt.

Robert: Barechested and barefoot.

Jad: Here we are. Bill standing in front of this ball of fire. There are three drunk teenagers inside that car, though he doesn't know it. You can either, A, do nothing or, B, go in-

Robert: Through the driver's door.

William: This big fellow slumped out the door. I reached in and grabbed a hold of him.

Robert: Around the chest, pulled him from the driver's seat out to the ground.

William: In the meantime, the car was just blazing and my neighbor was there. She was hollering, "There's more of them in there." So, I ran back to the vehicle.

Robert: Found that the front seat passenger was trapped in the wreckage.

William: I finally got him loose and pulled him out.

Robert: Apparently, Mr. Pennell was aware that a third person was in the car, a third young man. Mr. Pennell entered the car a third time. By then-

William: There were tires blowing out.

Robert: The flames had grown to about three feet above the car's roof.

William: The interior, the headliner of the car and stuff was dripping like plastic down on my back. I'm in there screaming, "Somebody give me a hand in here," but nobody would help. I reached in and grabbed a hold of the kid that was in the back by the scruff of the neck and pulled him out.

Lynn: All right, when you were coming out of your house, and you were looking at that car, what was going through your head?

William: I was just trying to help. I did what any normal person would do. I just kept saying, "This is somebody's kid." At the time my daughter was 16. I'm saying to myself, "If something, God forbid, whatever happened to her, that I would hope someone would be there to help."

Lynn: Did you ever talk to your neighbors and ask them why they didn't come in there?

William: You know what, that's funny you brought that up, because no, I've never brought it up.

Lynn: How come?

William: I don't know. Maybe I probably wouldn't like their answer. I don't know why I've never asked them.

Lynn: What do you think is the difference between you and those other people who just stood by?

William: I couldn't answer that.

Jad: So, our bold girl, she didn't know, this guy didn't really know either. Somebody must be able to tell us something about what they were thinking at that moment that allowed them, that gave them the courage to do what they did.

Walter: I can't give you a definite answer as to what propels people to do this. No.

Jad: But, we took one more shot with Walter. He told us about a case, that of all the cases he's heard, this is the one that puzzles him the most.

Walter: It's the case of Wesley James Autry, a construction worker from New York, 50-year-old man, who did jump into the track bed in a subway station to remove a fellow young man who had fallen onto the track. The gentleman was six foot. 180 pounds. He was inert and yet Mr. Autry persisted, despite the fact that a train was coming. There would come a point, at least in my estimation, where you would have to say, "I have to get out of here, because I'm going to be killed. I'm not suicidal."

Mr. Autry didn't think that way. He and I part in this in this manner. What he did was he lay atop the victim between the rails while the train passed over them. In the farthest reaches of my imagination, I can see myself jumping onto a subway track to attempt the rescue. What I can't see myself doing is lying atop the victim while the train passes over me.

[train sound]

Jad: Making this story even more nuts. When we finally met up with Wesley Autrey on the platform where this incident happened, 135th and Broadway, he explained to us that his daughters had been with him.

Wesley James Autry: They was okay.

Robert: How old are your daughters at that time?

Wesley: At that time my daughter was four, and six, and-- This them there.


Jad: He showed this picture.

Robert: Oh my God.

Jad: Super cute.

Wesley: The one behind me is Shuki, and this is the baby Sashi.

Jad: When they're standing there and this guy starts convulsing, and then eventually falls off the platform onto the tracks, right as a train is coming, his choice is pretty stark. In order to save this complete stranger, he's got to leave his daughters behind, potentially, without a dad.

Wesley: I'm looking at him shaking and going into another seizure. For some strange reason, a voice out of nowhere said, "Don't worry about your own. Don't worry about your daughters. You can do this."

Jad: So, he jumps, runs to the guy.

Robert: Is he conscious?

Wesley: No, no.

Jad: Tries to grab the guy's hand.

Wesley: Each time I grabbed his hand, it would slip apart. When he slipped, I look up, the train is getting closer. I grabbed his hand again, well, it slipped apart. The train is closer.

Jad: 50 feet, 20 feet, 10 feet, and then it's right there, and all he can do is grab the guy, get him in a bear hug, and flatten his body against the guy as much as he can.

[train sound]

Wesley: The first train car just grazed my calves.

Robert: Oh my God.

Jad: The train car went right over them.

Wesley: When the train came to a stop, four to five cars passed over us, I look him in the eyes, said, "Excuse me, you seem to have a seizure or something. I don't know you, you don't know me." I just kept talking to him until he came through, and he was like, "Well, where are we?" I'm like, "We're underneath a train." He said, "Well, who are you?" I said, "I came down to save your life." He kept asking me, "Are we dead? Are we in heaven?" I gave him a slight pinch on his arm. He said, "Ouch" I said, "See? You're very much alive."

Robert: Did you ever ask yourself at this point, "What am I doing here?" He asked you, "What am I doing here?" What about you?

Wesley: I can hear the two ladies who had my daughters standing in between their legs. I can hear my daughter screaming, so when that train come to a stop, I yelled up from underneath the train, "Excuse me. I'm the father. We are okay. I just want to let my daughters know that I'm okay because I know that they are worried about me." Everybody started clapping.

Jad: Can I ask you a question? The point at which you said you heard a voice that said, "I can do this."

Wesley: I can do this.

Jad: What is amazing to me, is that you left your daughters right here and dive after a guy you don't know.

Wesley: He was a stranger, total stranger, but you know what? The mission wasn't come completed. I was chose for that.

Jad: You felt chose, like you were--

Wesley: I felt like I was the chosen one.

Jad: Wow.

Robert: For a religious person, though, I would wonder, "Why me? What happened?"

Wesley: Well, you know what, maybe 20 years ago, I was supposed to be at a certain point--

Jad: And then he explained to us exactly why he had jumped. He was the one guy who could. He said right before his feet left the platform, this one specific moment from his life flashed to mind.

Wesley: This thing that happened, I had a gun pulled to my temple, but it was a misfire, so--

Robert: A gun was put to your head and missed? So, you were almost dead for a second or two.

Wesley: Oh, I was almost dead.

Robert: Oh, so you think you might have been spared for a purpose.

Wesley: I was spared for a reason.

Jad: After that moment, he says when the gun went click and he didn't die, he always wondered, why had God spared him that moment? Until he was on the platform, and he saw the guy fall off, he says then he knew, "This is why."

Wesley: I can do this.

Jad: It was just, "I can do this."

Wesley: I can do this. That voice, when that voice said that, "You're going to be okay," I knew everything was going to work out.

Robert: You know what I think, at the end of the day?

Jad: What's that?

Robert: I don't think that there's an answer to the question we asked.

Jad: The hero question?

Robert: Why were you a hero? I don't think that any three of these heros-- The last one had the longest explanation. He had been selected for some purpose, but does he know why he was chosen? Not a clue.

Jad: See, guy number three gives me something.

Robert: What does he give you?

Jad: Okay, so the first two, they have no idea. There's just something in them that made them act, but guy number three is talking about circumstances. The world prepared him for that moment. Serendipity. It makes me think, "Well, what if circumstances are just right, maybe any of us could do that."

William: I got a mailman. He used to say to me all the time, he says, "How did you manage to do that, Bill? How did you manage to pull them kids out?" I don't know if I could have done that. I said, "Well, you know what? Don't say you wouldn't do this or you wouldn't do that till you're put in that situation."

Jad: In fact, when we asked Walter, how many nominations do you get a year? Are they hard to find?

Walter: No, they are not hard at all to find. We are fortunate to be living in a society, regardless of what you hear elsewhere, we are fortunate to be living in a society where people do look out for others, even strangers.

Jad: He told us they've even had to up their guidelines to make it harder to win.

Walter: Simply because of the vast number of heroic deeds that happen in day-to-day life.


Walter: Hi, this is Walter Rutkowski. Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Speaker 6: Dedicated to the idea that all people deserve the chance to live healthy, productive lives.

Walter: At gates

Lora: Hi, this is Lora Shrake. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, supporting unconventional approaches to transform health and healthcare

Speaker 6: At, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. More information at

Walter: This is NPR. Okay, that was the best I can do.


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