Subway station Hero earned a
capital ‘H’ for his daring effort

Jan 9, 2007 4:25 AM

There are, in this country, heroes and Heroes.

The former, since there are few political heroes, usually are sports figures or movie stars. There are hero worshippers for every one of them, and some deserve the accolades and attention. Others do not, but that’s a separate story.

In recent weeks new sports heroes appeared, men like Jared Zabransky, who led the Boise State Broncos to their dramatic, almost unbelievable victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, the best football game played in America this year, and perhaps any other year. The Broncos coach, Chris Peterson, another hero who guided them to a perfect 13-0 season in his first year coaching at BSU, when asked about it showed his common touch and sense of humor by saying, "Yeah, another day at the office, huh?"

There was LaDanian Tomlinson, the superb running back for the San Diego Chargers, deservedly named the most valuable player in the National Football League. His 71-year-old father still lives, by choice, in an old one-story house without a phone in Tomlinson Hill, Texas. The town of 100 has no post office, no store, no gas station, but it produced the best professional football player in the United States.

There is JaMarcus Russell, the 6-foot-6, 257 pound quarterback of the Louisiana State Tigers, who humbled the highly hyped Brady Quinn as LSU destroyed Notre Dame 41-14 in the Sugar Bowl. He certainly is a hero in Louisiana, and is likely to be one nationally in another couple of years.

And then there is Wesley Autrey, a Hero with a capital H, standing far above the crowd of strong, fast men who perform their heroics on football fields, or basketball courts, or baseball diamonds, or hockey arenas.

Autrey won his H at a subway station in New York. You must have seen him on the front page of your local newspaper, or on network news or CNN, or on the Letterman show.

Autrey’s act of heroism was so mind-boggling that its sheer incredibility will haunt people’s memories — certainly mine — forever.

The Sunday newspapers were busy last weekend trying to explain how Autrey could have done what he did.

He was standing, as you know, on a subway platform at 137th street and Broadway in New York City. when a young man had a seizure, staggered and fell off the platform. Autrey jumped down, pinned the victim in a depression between the tracks, and laid on top of the struggling man as a train approached, The first cars rolled over them, scraping Autrey’s hat but not injuring either man.

The story would have been remarkable under any circumstances, but Autrey had been standing with his two daughters, 6 and 4, when he leaped down to help the fallen man.

Stop for a moment and put yourself on the platform, in Autrey’s shoes.

Would you have done what he did? Could you possibly have left your little girls to vault in front of an oncoming train? Or would you have been paralyzed with fear or simple inaction?

One story tried to explain what Autrey did by carefully outlining what each part of the human brain does in situations like this. It made for an interesting analysis of brain function, but the psychiatrists and the evolutionary biologists and sociologists and the rest of the science crowd took a valiant shot at this, trying to explain it on cultural (Autrey is black, the victim was white) or other intellectual terms, how and why he did it.

Autrey had a simpler explanation. "I had a split second decision to make. Do I let the train run over him and hear my daughters screaming and see the blood? Or do I jump in?

He jumped, despite the train and the 600-volt third rail and the likelihood of death for both him and the young man who fell. From under the train, after it stopped, he called out, "Let my daughters know that I’m okay and the man is okay."

Wesley Autrey is 50, a construction worker, a Navy veteran. He cannot kick or pass a ball or run with one. He won his varsity letter, however, on that subway platform, and it is a capital H. The rest of those guys will have to get along with a little one.