Commentary: Heroes are rare indeed

The Kansas City StarDecember 16, 2012 

It is the unspoken dread that must lurk in the imagination of nearly everyone who has traveled the underground rail system of one of the world’s great cities: the fear of stumbling or being shoved off the subway platform and falling into the zone of death.

It does happen — more often than one would care to know — and not only to visitors from the provinces. Just this past Monday, at the 49th Street and Seventh Avenue station in Times Square, a 58-year-old New Yorker took the fatal plunge.

According to witnesses, there had been a brief exchange of words between the victim and a mentally disturbed individual who had been roaming the platform, mumbling incoherently. Police have charged a man described by witnesses as the pusher.

In the aftermath of the tragic event, the Times news columns carried quotes from people expressing wonderment and dismay that among the considerable crowd in the station, not one had attempted a rescue.

But I have to say I understand perfectly. For one morning 28 years ago, on the No. 10 line of the Paris Metro, I was present at just such an event.

In that instance, the faller wasn’t pushed. He was a street person, likely disabled by drink — a derelict, or clochard as the French call him. I’d been studying the map on the station wall when, at the crowd’s gasp, I turned and saw him crumpled down on the tracks.

He’d missed the charged rail, but he’d hurt his leg. Scattered around him were his mean possessions: some torn rags that might once have been a sweater, a filthy half of a bread loaf, a broken umbrella. He turned his face up toward the people looking down.

“Ooooooh,” he whimpered, rocking and holding his leg.

Unlike the New York subway or the London tube, which arrive with a clatter, the Paris Metro is surprisingly quiet, often running on rubber wheels. And because that station was on a curve, there would be little warning of the train’s arrival.

It occurred to me to run to the far end of the platform, and when it came in sight to wave my arms, which of course would have been useless.

But then one man — a sturdy fellow in workman’s dress, who looked to be in his mid to late 20s — did the unimaginable. He jumped down into the trench, seized le miserable by his wretched garb, and shoved and dragged him up to safety. Then, against all reason, he went back down to retrieve the poor fellow’s few meager belongings.

Other hands laid the hurt man on a station bench. People slapped the rescuer on his back. He seemed to be amazed and aghast at having done something so reckless and unplanned.

The truth, as I wrote afterward, is that in desperate moments the ability to act is both priceless and rare. A few have it. Most of us do not.

Then a glow of light appeared in the bend of the tunnel. The train glided silently into the station, hesitated a moment and — except for the one left moaning on a bench — carried us all away.

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