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


ProtoplasmaKid | CC BY SA 4.0

John Burger - published on 12/28/17

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.

IGNACIO ECHEVERRIA. Terrorists strike when we’re just going about our everyday lives, working or enjoying our leisure time. Ignacio Echeverria was on his way home from an evening of skateboarding, a way he relaxed when not working at HSBC in London, when he encountered a knife- and truck-attack underway on London Bridge and Borough Market June 3. The 39-year-old native of Madrid used his skateboard to fight off a jihadist who was stabbing a woman. He himself ended up getting stabbed—and killed.

A friend recalled Echeverria as “indefatigable,” someone who “helped those who were marginalized.” Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, lauded Echeverria’s “heroic and exemplary act,” and the foreign ministry in Madrid said he was a model of solidarity for everyone.

“His bravery in standing up for a defenseless person is a reminder of the need to remain united in the face of the scourge of terrorism,” the ministry said.

TOPOS. To be called a mole is no great compliment, in any language. But in Mexico, the Topos, or “moles,” of Tlatelolco were held in high esteem even before the country suffered two devastating earthquakes this year. Formed after the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, which claimed more than 5,000 lives, the Topos go into collapsed and unstable buildings looking for and extricating survivors.

And they don’t restrict their activity to Mexico. They’ve been all over the world on missions of mercy, including New York’s World Trade Center in 2001. Some of the team had just returned from assisting in relief efforts in the US after Hurricane Irma when Mexico’s capital was hit September 19 by the 8.2-magnitude quake. The disaster claimed 370 lives.

Oscar Guevara, a doctor from the central Mexican state of Queretero who joined the Topos in 2010, told Sky News the “intense emotion” of finding someone alive is all the motivation he needs.

MATTRESS MACK. When Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston August 25, dumping tons of rain water and forcing thousands of residents out of flooded homes, Jim McIngvale opened his Gallery Furniture stores to flood refugees. Known locally as Mattress Mack, McIngvale sent his company delivery trucks out to neighborhoods to bring people to his stores, and made arrangements to feed them. He said they could stay for “however long they need to be here.”

JOSE ANDRES. Celebrity chef and restaurant owner José Andrés traveled to Puerto Rico to gather volunteers and supplies to help those who have been affected by Hurricane Maria. Using the Twitter hashtag #ChefsforPuertoRico to organize the relief effort, the Spanish-American chef also helped find a lost 86-year-old man and let Puerto Ricans know where to go for free sancocho (beef stew). Andrés founded the non-profit World Central Kitchen in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti, and has provided assistance in Nicaragua, Zambia, and in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.

THE KAYAK PRIEST. There were many like Mattress Mack and Jose Andrés who sought to provide for people’s basic needs during the 2017 hurricane season. One who was concerned for their spiritual needs was a priest from Quebec who’s been ministering at the Houston Charismatic Center for two years. Fr. David Bergeron, a member of the Companions of the Cross religious community, often has his kayak in the back of his pickup truck, so locals call him “the kayak priest.” He was able to rescue some people in floodwaters, and he paddled around to bring people hope in the midst of seemingly endless rains.

“I was praying for calm of the storm, but especially for the storm in the heart of the people,” he told CTV News.

THE CHAINSAW NUN.Sister Margaret Ann, the principal of Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in Miami, was caught by police as she was using a chainsaw on a tree. That sounds bad, but it was actually very good, because the Carmelite sister was cutting the tree up in the wake of Hurricane Irma so cars could get through.

“All I wanted to do is clear the road and make it safer for other people,” she told NBC Miami. “I still don’t understand why it went so viral.”

UNKNOWN WALMART SHOPPER. Sadly, much tragedy in the world is avoidable, caused by carelessness rather than nature or evil intentions. Too many young children are left in hot cars each year, by a distracted parent or guardian who has to run into a store “just for a second.” Many of these kids end up suffocating to death.

That was not to be the outcome in Spartanburg, South Carolina, one day last June. When a shopper pulled into the parking lot of the local Walmart, she heard a baby crying. Looking around, she noticed a child strapped in the back seat of a van, with the windows closed and the doors locked. The six-month-old was sweating, said the shopper, who is not identified in news reports. When she could not open the van to give the child some air, she immediately called employees for help. Subsequently, an employee smashed a window and was able to reach in, unlock the carseat strap and pull the child out.

“A car heats up fairly quickly,” said Safe Kids Spartanburg Coordinator Penny Shaw. “The car is going to heat up 10 degrees every 20 minutes.”

NAOMI FINDLAY and DEAN WILKINS. This British couple have one big reason to be grateful at this time of the year. Their first child, Vanellope Hope Wilkins, was due to be born on Christmas Day. But a scan this summer showed that the baby’s heart was growing outside her body, a rare condition known as ectopia cordis. They could have given up and aborted the baby. But that’s out of the question for the couple.

So, against a 1-in-10 odds for survival, they opted to try to save Vanellope’s life. That required a team of nearly 50 medical professionals, and after a November 22 C-section birth, surgeons at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester successfully placed her heart back into her chest. At last report, the baby still had some medical issues, but parents remained hopeful.

JJ HANSON, a veteran Marine who served in Iraq and former New York state government official, was diagnosed three years ago with glioblastoma. He was given a prognosis of four months. But that didn’t get him down. Knowing how vulnerable people like himself are becoming as more states legalize physician-assisted suicide, Hanson went back to war—not only against his own illness but with the legal trend toward assisted suicide. He joined the Patients’ Rights Action Fund and lobbied in state houses against pending bills. Thanks in part to his efforts, New York State turned its proposal back, though he did not see the same success in Washington, D.C.

Now Hanson is facing his own end of life, but he can rest assured that he has “fought the good fight.”

Naturally, no list of heroes can be complete, for there are many unknown and unsung. Have you witnessed acts of heroism this year? Write about it in the comments box below.

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