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Heroes of 2017: Honoring those who didn’t run the other way


Natural disasters, mass shootings and terrorism brought out the best in many this year.

It’s been a year of high drama, from the White House to North Korea to the flooded streets of Houston and Miami to the rubble-strewn avenues of Mexico City.

In spite of so many tragic events—or perhaps because of them—the world has heard the stories of a good number of heroes in 2017. Some of the worst natural disasters and mass shootings and some fatal terrorist attacks have brought out the best in people who have found themselves in difficult situations.

As we bid farewell to 2017, Aleteia would like to salute these heroes, knowing full well that there are many others who did not make the headlines.

JONATHAN SMITH. The deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in the U.S. left 58 people dead and hundreds wounded at a country music festival in Las Vegas October 1. The suspect, Stephen Paddock, who opened fire from his suite in the Mandalay Bay hotel and resort, apparently died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

There were many acts of heroism reported from the crowd of 22,000 concertgoers. One of them, Jonathan Smith, is credited with saving about 30 lives, in spite of getting shot himself. He was at the festival to celebrate his brother’s 43rd birthday, and soon after the shooting began, he got separated from his family. During the melee, he did his best to get terrified people to safety. “Active shooter, active shooter, let’s go! We have to run,” he repeatedly shouted.

A few girls weren’t fully hidden. The copy machine repairman from Orange County, California, stood up and moved toward them to urge them to get on the ground. That’s when a bullet struck him in the neck.

Smith’s story was quickly shared on social media, leading many to call him a hero. He deflected the honor.

“I don’t see myself that way,” he told the Washington Post. “I would want someone to do the same for me. No one deserves to lose a life coming to a country festival.”

Smith believes an off-duty San Diego police officer saved his life. The officer came over and tried to stop the bleeding and then flagged down passing cars to try to get Smith a ride. By the time Smith got into a vehicle, he was struggling to breathe.

Surgeons found it too risky to remove the bullet from his neck. Smith may have to live with it for the rest of his life.

STEPHEN WILLEFORD. When a gunman opened fire at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, November 5, Stephen Willeford, who lived nearby, didn’t run the other way.

“I kept hearing the shots, one after another, very rapid shots — just ‘pop pop pop pop,’ and I knew every one of those shots represented someone, that it was aimed at someone, that they weren’t just random shots,” an emotional Willeford, who knew many of the worshipers at the church, told KHBS.

Willeford, a former NRA instructor, got his rifle out of his safe, loaded a magazine and went toward the church. When he saw the gunman emerge from the small wood-frame building, the two exchanged gunfire. Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, who killed 26 people in the incident, was hit in the leg and the torso but got into his SUV and sped down the highway. Willeford and another resident gave chase and called 911, but Kelley’s vehicle hit a road sign and flipped over. He is believed to have committed suicide.

“I was scared to death,” Willeford said. “I’m not a hero. I think my God, my Lord protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done,” he said.

His quick actions could have prevented further bloodshed in the small town.

RYAN NASH. NYPD Officer Ryan Nash was responding to a call from a school in lower Manhattan about a possible suicidal student when Sayfullo Saipov crashed his rented truck into a school bus nearby. Nash rushed outside and saw the Uzbek immigrant, who had just driven the truck down a bike path, killing eight cyclists and pedestrians Oct. 31. Saipov seemed to be brandishing two weapons and was shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Nash fired nine shots at Saipov, hitting him in the abdomen and bringing a stop to a terrorist attack in progress.

The weapons turned out to be a pellet gun and a paintball gun, but nobody knew that at the time.

“What he did was extraordinary,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. Nash demurred, saying, “We were just doing our job, like thousands of officers do every day.”

Nash was a hero, but so was a civilian—unnamed in news reports—who had previously tried to tackle the suspect as he was getting out of the rented truck. After Saipov was shot, the civilian approached him and kicked the guns out of his hands.

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