Give him a medal!

“We live in a heroic age. Not seldom are we thrilled by deeds of heroism where men or women are injured or lose their lives in attempting to preserve or rescue their fellows; such are the heroes of civilization. The heroes of barbarism maimed or killed theirs.”

– Andrew Carnegie
A 50-year-old New York man literally leapt to the rescue of a stranger on Tuesday in a way that would have made Andrew Carnegie proud:

NEW YORK — Wesley Autrey faced a harrowing choice as he tried to rescue a teenager who fell off a platform onto a subway track in front of an approaching train: Struggle to hoist him back up to the platform in time, or take a chance on finding safety under the train.

At first, he tried to pull the young man up, but he was afraid he wouldn’t make it in time and they would both be killed.

“So I just chose to dive on top of him and pin him down,” he said.

Autrey and the teen landed in the drainage trough between the rails Tuesday as a southbound No. 1 train entered the 137th Street/City College station.

The train’s operator saw them on the tracks and applied the emergency brakes.

Two cars passed over the men _ with about 2 inches to spare, Autrey said. The troughs are typically about 12 inches deep but can be as shallow as 8 or as deep as 24, New York City Transit officials said.

Autrey had been waiting for a train with his two young daughters. After the train stopped, he heard bystanders scream and yelled out: “We’re O.K. down here but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.,” The New York Times reported.

While spectators cheered Autrey, hugged him and hailed him as a hero, he didn’t see it that way.

“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” he told the Times. “I did what I felt was right.”

Mr. Autry’s story has appropriately been featured on tv and in many news stories, and it reminded me of something I learned about several years ago: the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, created by the well-known industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie created the fund, initially endowed with $5 million, in 1904 after being inspired by reading of the selfless rescue efforts of people responding to a coal-mine disaster.

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission has given out more than 9,000 medals since its inception to individuals who risk their lives to save others, including 92 people in 2006. Each received a medal and grant ($5,000 in 2006). In addition, widows and orphans of rescuers receive Carnegie pensions and some children of deceased medal earners receive college scholarships. To date the fund has distributed more than $29 million in one-time grants, scholarship aid, death benefits, and continuing assistance.

The fund has some interesting requirements. People who save others in the line of duty – police, firemen, soldiers – don’t qualify, though several off-duty individuals have won. People who save family members qualify only if they are killed or severely injured in the rescue. Essentially, you can’t be a hero for doing what’s expected of you. Most of the awards go to people who risked their lives to save strangers. For the record, 7 recipients last year died in their attempts to save others; two medal winners were in their 70s and one was 81; three were 15 to 16 years old; five were women. Medal winners were recognized for rescuing others from burning (46), drowning (17), assault (15), animal attack (5), accidents (5) and falls (2). You can get the details concerning these and other heroes here.

I celebrate Mr. Autry and wish that the 92 heroes recognized with Carnegie medals last year could have received the same attention and celebration — not just because they deserve it, but because we need to hear about it. Just think, 92 people; that’s nearly two heroes a week we could be splashing on our video screens, tabloids, web pages and talking about over lunch. I’d much rather hear about these actions than some celebimbo who’s gone out without her underpants. And, much like Carnegie’s quote that opened this post, I’d much rather see the media focus its attention on those who preserve or rescue their fellows as opposed to those who take a bomb into a public place to maim or kill theirs.

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