Where the heroes are

Published on: December 12, 2012

If you are looking for Superman, he’s on a pedestal in the small town of Metropolis, Illinois.  Photo Mitch Traphagen

If you are looking for Superman, he’s on a pedestal in the small town of Metropolis, Illinois. Photo Mitch Traphagen


Last week, a New York Times headline asked, “Where are the heroes?” The question was posed in response to the death of a man at a Midtown Manhattan subway station. He was thrown onto the tracks and killed by an oncoming train.

Although people were on the platform, no one helped as Ki-Suck Han, a husband and father from Queens, tried to climb back on the platform to escape the oncoming train. A photographer from a New York tabloid did manage, however,  to get some haunting, well-composed photographs of the last moments of his life, holding the edge of the platform while a train was bearing down on him. The photographer later said he repeatedly fired his camera’s flash in an attempt to alert the train driver.

He later said that was all he could do. I wasn’t there, I’ll have to take him at his word. But I do know the newspaper he works for had no concerns about it — they ran a front page photo of the last seconds of his life, with an inflammatory and (to me) incredibly insensitive and disrespectful headline. I’m sure they made money off of it. I can’t imagine it was enough to pay off the mortgage they also placed on their souls.

There were no heroes that day for Mr. Han. I would like to think that he was the tragic exception in not having a hero nearby when needed. Please tell me that is the case. Please tell me there are indeed heroes among us. I personally believe you might be one of them.

A lot of people believe the word “hero” is bandied about a good bit too freely since 9/11. Today, it is apparently applied to everyone from someone recovering from a bad head cold to young children who manage to use the toilet properly.

From my perspective, the events of 9/11 simply brought the definition of a hero into sharp focus. As thousands of people ran out of the smoking, flaming, crumbling nightmare that was the World Trade Center in New York, police officers, firefighters and other first responders ran in. They put the welfare of others before themselves. To me, that is the very definition of a hero and I believe that could be amended to simply include people who do good things that most people wouldn’t do. Such people are my personal heroes.

I hope we all have personal heroes, some we know about, others like unobtrusive companions, standing by in the wings to keep us from stepping out into traffic or falling onto the tracks. Clearly, on that day last week, Mr. Han’s hero was nowhere to be found. I would like to think I would have tossed the camera gear and tried to help. But no one really knows what you’d do in a split-second emergency like that. In many more minor instances, I often catch myself after the fact saying, “I wish I had done something.” If there is a silver lining to Mr. Han’s death, it is that something has been added to a mental checklist of things for which to be prepared. I’ll toss the cameras and run to help, praying I make it in time — a life is worth at least trying.

My Mom is my personal hero. The reasons why are far too numerous to list in a newspaper column, but suffice to say that she raised four children to be happy and productive adults and lived her life to the best of her ability, the last 35 years of which as a single mother. Seriously, most people could (should) consider their mothers their heroes, right?

My wife Michelle is my personal hero. She deserves that title just for putting up with me, but there is far more to it than that. She puts herself out there when she feels she is needed, sometimes to unintended dramatic effect (ask me about the time she kidnapped a parakeet to save its life), but always with the best of intentions. Her heart is made of gold.

My bosses at the newspaper are personal heroes. When my Mom’s health took a turn for the worst recently and I decided to leave for Christmas more than two weeks early, the response of CEO Wes Mullins and Publisher Brenda Knowles wasn’t one of worry about me doing my job and earning my keep, it was of concern for me and my Mom. “Family comes first,” Wes said. That’s not a quote you’d hear from many CEOs today.

September 11, 2001, did indeed provide a sound definition of a hero, but it seems the definition has softened in the years since. Today people are more likely to criticize cops than to walk up to give them a hug. From the hero standpoint, they are no different today than they were 11 years ago. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you make, where you live, or even if you’ve told inane jokes about them in the past, if you need them they will come. They will put your welfare before their own, and although they repeatedly demonstrate that, they rarely take the credit for it. Firefighters and other first responders are the same — unsung heroes. They don’t want headlines, they want to keep you safe.

I wish Mr. Han’s hero, his unknown, unobtrusive companion, had been in that subway station that day. Perhaps in thinking about him, in honoring him and the unsigned, unspoken compact we have as our brother’s keepers, we could all be someone’s hero. It doesn’t take much — hold open a door, carry an elderly person’s groceries or carry out their garbage, perhaps even just give someone a smile — it may change their day. It’s simply a matter of doing something good that a lot of people wouldn’t otherwise do. You never know — you could even end up saving a life. Where are the heroes? They are everywhere you are.