A young man stumbles from a subway platform and falls onto the train tracks, dazed and disoriented. As horrified bystanders look on, lights flicker nearby in the dark tunnel, signaling that a train is rapidly barreling closer. The man is in imminent danger.
There is only a split second to decide whether or not to take action:
What would you do?
Would you stand there, wishing desperately that someone else would stop the train, or would your risk your own life by jumping to the disoriented rider’s aid?
Here’s what one person did. A few weeks ago, a man named Wesley Autrey was entering a subway station in New York with his two small daughters. Autrey is a 50-year old African-American construction worker who was dropping his daughters off at their school.
It was the noon rush hour and the station was busy with people going from one part of New York City to another. As Autrey approached the platform to wait for a train, he noticed a young man had fallen down and seemed to be having a seizure.
Of all the people in the crowd, only Autrey and two women came over to the man, who was choking and shaking violently. They tried to sit him up, clear his throat, and wipe his face. After a moment, the man seemed better. He stood up and walked a few steps. Then, to everyone’s horror, the seizure seemed to return, causing the man to fall over the edge of the platform backwards onto the train tracks between the two rails a few feet below.
Autrey realized that all the other men on the platform had just left moments before on a train. He saw the man lying on his back and kicking again. He thought to himself, “I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to help this guy.”
At first, he tried to pull the man back up to the platform but his hands were wet and he kept slipping back down on the tracks. Autrey knew that if the man stayed on the tracks, a coming train would kill or seriously injure him in the next few minutes.
After asking the two women to watch his daughters, Autrey next jumped off the platform and tried to help the man climb back up but he was too heavy. Then Autrey saw the light of an oncoming train just a minute or so away from them. He made a very fast judgment call.
A Happy Ending to a Scary Moment
As the train came within a few hundred feet of them into the station lights, Autrey could see that if they lay as flat as possible in the middle of the tracks, the train should pass over them with a few inches’ clearance. He pushed the man down and covered him with his own body, holding the man’s arms and legs in close, away from the train tracks on either side. He said to the man, “Please don’t move!”
The train engineer saw the men on the tracks, pulled his whistle and hit the brakes as hard as possible but the train could not be stopped soon enough. As Autrey and the man lay there, five subway cars passed directly over their heads with a clearance of about two inches. Neither man was harmed.
The cars emptied and then subway employees began shouting to the men below. Autrey called out, “Everybody up there! Tell the children that their daddy is OK!”
After a wait of twenty minutes in order to shut off the electrical power to the “third rail” (which would have electrocuted anyone on the tracks who touched it), it was finally safe for the men to get out from under the train.
The ill man was sent in an ambulance to a hospital. An admiring crowd was waiting for Autrey, cheering when he finally got back up on the platform. Cheers or not, Autrey then went on to drop his daughters off at school and simply went back to work!
Since that day, Wesley Autrey has become a national hero and his life has changed. He won an award from the Mayor of New York City, he’s been on numerous national TV shows to talk about his actions, and he’s received trips to Disneyland for his family, cash awards, and much more.
Autrey doesn’t have any second thoughts about the risks he took. “It’s a great way to start the New Year,” he said with a smile, “saving somebody’s life.”
Courage Plus Cool Judgment
The first thing we’re struck by in this real-life drama is the sheer courage of Wesley Autrey. Only a few of us are ever likely to be in a position to rescue, unaided, someone from drowning, not to mention someone who has fallen on subway tracks. But we can all imagine such a moment. What would we do? (Most people interviewed after this event said they would not have the courage to do what Autrey did.)
One aspect of courage is physical bravery, of course. We can only act bravely when we conquer our fear, including fear of death. Autrey knew very well that he and the man might be killed, but he took action anyway.
In fact, his ability to keep down his fear allowed him to use the several seconds he had to make a quick visual guess as to whether the clearance underneath the train would be enough to keep the two men from being hurt. He guessed right.
It probably helped that Autrey had been in the Navy, where his training may have prepared him for this kind of emergency situation.
And, as a New Yorker who works in the construction business, Autrey probably remembered the kinds of risks many of his fellow New Yorkers took for each other on September 11, 2001, during the terrorist attacks on their city.
Judging from just these factors, we could also say that Autrey used another important virtue, along with his courage: that of prudence or good judgment. He took a risk, but it was not just a crazy gamble. He later said that he was familiar with track configuration. He took the risk after he made a judgment that he and the man had a chance of surviving underneath the train.
Courage and good judgment are both described in our Catholic Catechism, where they are defined using the terms “fortitude” and “prudence.” They are two of the four cardinal virtues—key virtues that open the door to a whole host of good actions.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
Autrey risked his life to save a total stranger. He credits his mother with instilling in him a sense of concern for others without expecting anything in return. His heroism in charity for another person is the likely result of childhood habits, the kind of small daily actions that lead us to act quickly when we are needed.
For example, Autrey was afraid that his children might be about to witness their own father’s death, so he asked the women nearby to watch the children. From under the train, his first concern after surviving was to make sure his children knew he was all right.
This ability to show care or concern for others is part of our Catholic faith also. It’s the virtue of charity, which we’ve discussed before in this series.
We usually think of a hero as someone unusual for his or her virtues, especially courage and personal integrity. Autrey says he doesn’t see himself as a hero or as having done something unusual. “I don’t want people to blow this out of proportion,” Autrey told the media several times. “I believe all New Yorkers ought to get into this mode. You should do the right thing.”
It’s a good point. In today’s world, people are often reluctant to take risks to help each other, usually through fears of one kind or another. Even if it’s the right thing.
But Autrey is also saying something else that reveals his good character and outlook. He is refusing to sound prideful about what he did, which is evidence of his sense of humility and modesty.
It’s Not About Me (or You)
Our Catholic faith teaches us that we should develop what are called the human virtues–courage, good judgment, self-control and fairness—perhaps all of which Autrey demonstrated in the subway rescue. Out of each of these four “cardinal” (or key) virtues come lots of other human virtues.
For example, the virtue of humility is one dimension of self-control. Instead of allowing our talents and successes to distract us from the truth that we need God in all things, humility teaches us to remember our human weakness and, for example, our need to turn to God in prayer.
A sense of duty as a citizen also inspired Autrey to act. In his State of the Union Address on January 23rd, President Bush recounted how Autrey (who attended as the President’s guest) told him, “We got guys and girls overseas dying for us to have our freedoms. We have got to show each other some love.” The president went on to say, “There is something wonderful about a country that produces a brave and humble man like Wesley Autrey.”
Being courageous in making this world a place where every human life is valued and protected is part of our mission as well. By building up the habit of generous charity and exercising the other virtues we will become the heroes who are needed in the lives of those around us. Like Wesley Autrey, we won’t be looking for attention, but just doing the right thing. At the end of our lives Christ will let us see the fruit of our efforts and sacrifices, and we will be able to join our Lord in the heroes’ welcome that we do seek: life with him forever.