Ordinary People, Extraordinary Rescues

by Martin Morse Wooster,
The American Enterprise, September 2000
©2005 The American Enterprise
Permission to use this material was granted by The American Enterprise

“Gentlemen,” declared Andrew Carnegie in 1904, “We live in a heroic age. Not seldom are we thrilled by deeds of heroism when men and 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.”

If you want to find the true heroes of America today, the best place to look is on the sixteenth floor of an obscure office building in downtown Pittsburgh. There you’ll find the headquarters of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, which since 1904 has awarded over 8,000 medals to persons who have risked their lives saving others.

The Carnegie Hero Fund is one of the less well-known of the charities created by the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie; its investigators frequently have to tell people they’re not selling Dale Carnegie courses or inviting them to play at Carnegie Hall. The fund’s mission remains largely unchanged since Carnegie’s time: to seek out North Americans who perform brave deeds and provide them with a medal and a $3,500 grant. In addition, widows and orphans receive Carnegie pensions, and some children of deceased Carnegie Medal winners receive college scholarships.

In 1999, 102 Carnegie Medals were awarded: 47 for saving people from fires, 20 from drowning, 11 for fending off animal attacks, 11 for assaults from criminals, five from electrocution, and one from suffocation. The youngest hero was Alana Franklin, 11, of Ocala, Florida, who helped free her six-year-old nephew from a gunman who was holding her family hostage. Two septuagenarians also received Carnegie Medals: Burnell Gilleland of Haskell, Texas, who died saving his grandson from a well filled with propane, and Frank S. Hedingham, of Lantzville, British Columbia, who helped fight off a bear in a provincial park.

In the early morning of January 25, 1904, the Allegheny Coal Company’s mine in Harwick, Pennsylvania, exploded, killing 181. After the explosion, mining engineer Selwyn Taylor descended into the mine, rescuing one miner but dying afterward from poisonous gases he’d inhaled. Daniel Lyle, an off-duty miner, responded to a call for volunteers. Lyle spent the afternoon helping wounded survivors of the disaster to the surface. But as Lyle went deeper and deeper into the mine, he too was overcome by fumes and died.

Touched by the heroism of Taylor and Lyle, Carnegie ordered gold medals created to honor the two heroes and gave $40,000 to a fund created to assist victims of the disaster. But Carnegie wanted to do more. He had long been interested in ways to aid what he called “the swimming tenth—the industrious workers who keep their heads above water and help themselves.” And as a fervent peace advocate, Carnegie believed those who died or injured themselves saving others deserved just as much respect as soldiers killed or wounded in battle.

So in March 1904, Carnegie donated “five million dollars of First Collateral Five Per Cent Bonds of the United States Steel Corporation” to create the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Smaller grants were used to create other hero funds in nine other countries.

“I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this fund, knowing full well that heroic action is impulsive,” Carnegie declared, “but I do believe that, if the hero is injured in his bold attempt to serve or save his fellows, he and those dependent upon him should not suffer pecuniarily.”

At the time of the Hero Fund’s creation, Carnegie was hounded by the great and the good, who had plenty of ideas about how to spend his money. (Princeton, for example, sent a tag team of its president, Woodrow Wilson, and Grover Cleveland, at the time a Princeton trustee.) But no one suggested to Carnegie that he reward heroes; he thought it up on his own.

“Every other philanthropic fund that Carnegie had ever established had been proposed to him—often forced upon him—by others,” notes Carnegie biographer Joseph Frazier Wall. “The Hero Fund came out of his own head and heart, and it delighted him.” Perhaps it’s because the Hero Fund was Carnegie’s favorite among his charities that it remains the only national Carnegie philanthropy to remain in Pittsburgh, instead of being headquartered in New York or Washington.

How has the Fund changed over the years? The types of rescues have certainly changed over time. Carnegie Hero Fund executive director Walter Rutkowski has been looking at early cases; he tells TAE that 75 years ago, the fund gave many more awards to heroes who saved others from being trapped in wells, being mauled by runaway horses, or being stuck on an ice floe. Today, there are more rescues from burning cars than in the past. About two-thirds of the awards are usually given to heroes who save others from burning or drowning.

But the way cases are investigated would be familiar to Andrew Carnegie. The Hero Fund’s clipping service sends about 80 clips a week to Pittsburgh, and each lead is carefully investigated. People who save others in the line of duty, such as police officers and firefighters, don’t qualify nor do members of the military, although many off-duty police, firefighters, and soldiers have received awards. Children considered too young to know what they’re doing aren’t awarded medals. And rescuers who save the lives of family members only get medals when the rescuer dies or is severely injured.

Once ineligible cases are discarded, cases are then given to one of the four Carnegie Hero Fund case investigators. Case investigators are somewhat like insurance claims investigators, but they are more like newspaper reporters with very long deadlines. In fact, all four present investigators came to the fund with some experience in journalism.

Investigator Paul Snatchko came to the Hero Fund after a stint as a junior staff writer at the Washington, Pennsylvania Observer-Reporter. When he was a journalist covering a fire, Snatchko says, “I’d have two hours to cover the story. Now I have four months.”

For most of the fund’s history, investigators spent up to 40 weeks a year in the field. Their lives were the stuff of romance. A 1935 official history of the fund provides scores of stories of investigators paddling 25 miles down remote Canadian rivers (checking the speed of the current along the way), crossing impenetrable swamps, and dealing with such sinister characters as “Peg-leg Jones.” Carnegie investigators, noted a 1909 article in Century Magazine, “go forth, each armed with a Kodak and a typewriter, to interview, to analyze, and to summarize.”

The investigator’s job remained unchanged for the fund’s first 70 years. But in 1979, Carter administration economic policies placed the fund in dire peril. With the fund’s endowment down to $9 million and double-digit inflation threatening further erosion, fund president Robert Off ordered investigators to cut down their trips in the field. By 1985, fund investigators stayed at their desks. (Although the endowment has now risen to $34 million, investigators have remained in the office.)

But even stuck in the office, Hero Fund investigators are extremely thorough. Consider how a journalist and a fund investigator might cover a rescuer who saved someone from drowning. The reporter on deadline might make a few calls to local lifeguards and to victims. But the Carnegie Hero Fund investigation manual lists 41 questions investigators have to ask someone who witnessed a drowning. How far away was the witness from the incident? How far away was the victim from the shore? What was the water temperature? Was there a current? Was there anything a rescuer could use to aid the victim? Were there lifeguards? How far away were they?

Carnegie investigators are also encouraged to leave their personal agendas at home. “Absolute objectivity should be your ideal,” the manual states. “Purge yourself of all prejudice, including race, religion, station in society, political philosophy, and the like, none of which is relevant to your goal.”

Investigators also have their own set of abbreviations. A rescuer is an RR. A rescued person is a QD. Eyewitnesses are EWs. Other frequently used abbreviations are WAA (witness after an accident), CW (character witness), WTC (witness to conditions), RPR (the person who first reported a case), and BB (burning building). The origins of these abbreviations are not known. They were used in an edition of the investigators’ manual from the 1940s and were probably used for decades before that. But they’re terms that generations of Hero Fund investigators have found very handy.

Once a case investigation is finished, the cases are then presented to the 21 members of the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission board. The board, composed of eminent Pittsburghers who serve without pay, then determines whether a rescuer “voluntarily risked his or her life to an extraordinary degree.”

Walter Rutkowski, the Carnegie Hero Fund’s executive director, says there’s been a good deal of debate within the commission about what an “extraordinary degree” of heroism means. A rescuer, Rutkowski says, “has to face a real threat…he has to fight the shark, not the possibility of a shark.”

But the board members, Rutkowski says, want to make sure that the achievements of Carnegie medalists are ones that ordinary people can duplicate. “We don’t want people to be supermen, for Pete’s sake,” Rutkowski says. “In many cases, the water could be deeper, the fire could be hotter, the gun used by a criminal could be of larger caliber.” Where the line is drawn, says Rutkowski, will be the subject of endless debate.

Once the board members decide which rescues are worthy of awards, they then determine how many people at each event deserve to receive medals. Usually each rescue results in one medal. Sometimes two people receive a medal for their heroic act. But a particularly ferocious bear resulted in five Carnegie Medals being awarded in 1999.

The bear went on a rampage in a provincial park in Fort Nelson, British Columbia, in August 1997. The beast’s trail of terror included mauling Patti McConnell, of Paris, Texas; her 14-year-old son Kelly; Raymond Kitchen of Fort Nelson; Frank S. Hedingham of Lantzville, British Columbia; Ingrid Bailey of Felton, California; and Gary Richmond of Vancouver. After the bear was gunned down by provincial park rangers, Patti McConnell and Raymond Kitchen died, and Kelly McConnell was hospitalized for three months.

“This was one bad bear,” says Carnegie investigator Marlin Ross. But by stepping in to fight the brute, Ingrid Bailey, Frank Hedingham, Raymond Kitchen, Kelly McConnell, and Gary Richmond all received Carnegie Medals (Kitchen’s was awarded posthumously).

In the distant past, the Hero Fund awarded larger prizes to acts of large-scale heroism. A gold medal was struck to reward the sailors who rescued survivors of the Titanic (it’s now in the Smithsonian). And after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, an investigator was dispatched to that city with $55,000 in aid.

But these days, rewarding large-scale heroism taxes the Hero Fund’s limited resources. Walter Rutkowski recalls that, after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, there was some discussion about whether to send investigators, but the fund decided the case was too complex for its resources. A similar reaction occurred after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, which the fund’s staff decided not to investigate after seeing a Newsweek cover story titled, “Heroes by the Hundreds.” “It’s just not viable for us to cover something like that,” Rutkowski says.

Why do heroes act the way they do? What does it take for someone to save others from drowning, pull them out of a burning building, or pry them away from the claws of a savage bear?

Ask Walter Rutkowski this question, and he’ll pull out a three-inch-thick file labeled “Theory.” He refers back to Andrew Carnegie’s notion that “heroic action is impulsive,” but adds that, when medal recipients are asked this question, they usually respond, “I couldn’t stand by and do nothing,” or “I learned this in Sunday school,” or “This is how I was brought up.” “The basic reason people get involved is one word—empathy,” Rutkowski says.

Investigator Marlin Ross, who has been working for the Hero Fund for nearly 20 years, has a favorite story involving a case where a 40-year-old man pulled a teenager out of a burning car. The teenager was clearly drunk. “I know when I was that age I did some stupid things,” the hero told Ross.

“I just hope this guy lives long enough to tell his kids the same things.”

The expert on what makes Carnegie heroes act is sociologist Samuel Oliner. An emeritus professor at Humboldt State University, Oliner knows the deeds of rescuers firsthand. A Holocaust survivor, Oliner was saved from Nazi tyranny by a Polish farm family who took him in and taught him enough of the catechism to enable him to pose as a Catholic until the end of the war.

Oliner has spent his professional life studying altruism. He’s surveyed Christians and Jews who saved people from the Holocaust, hospice volunteers, and winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Victoria Cross. He’s surveyed 210 representative Carnegie Medalists for a book in progress.

According to Oliner, Carnegie Medalists tend to have several virtues in common. They were brought up with a sense that it was their duty to help others. They are self-confident people who believe they can perform dangerous deeds. They tend to have strong religious faith; if Christian, they tend to say, “Jesus would have wanted me to do this.”

About 90 percent of the people Oliner surveyed were male. That’s close to the historical average; since 1904, male Carnegie Medalists have outnumbered female ones by nine to one. Oliner believes this gender gap exists because “women are not expected to do dangerous things.” (Rescues that involve less physical danger, such as hospice volunteers and Holocaust rescuers, tend to be more evenly split between the sexes.)

The heroes themselves are modest about why they did what they did. Clarence Purdy, a 70-year-old retired foreman from Columbia Falls, Montana, was celebrating his birthday in 1998 by picking apples and listening to a bluegrass concert. As he was heading home, he saw Jerry Pate’s car on fire in a ditch. Purdy kicked out the glass in Pate’s window, grabbed Pate, and dragged him away from the burning vehicle. Just as Purdy finished hauling Pate to safety, the car’s battery exploded, engulfing the car in flames.

Purdy didn’t have to stop. He had recently lost a leg due to a blood clot. And while he was dragging Pate to safety, many other cars roared past the narrow two-lane highway—some at 65 mph. “I did it because the guy was unconscious and he would have faded in three minutes,” Purdy says. “I could have gone to get help, but I didn’t have the time.”

Kerry Clark became a hero in February 1999. He was sitting in the back yard of his farm in Medina, Ohio, walking his dog on a Sunday morning. It was a frosty winter day, and Clark saw a small airplane crash in the nearby woods. The plane was filled with agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), and was on fire. In addition, the plane was packed with ammunition.

When Clark arrived, BATF agent Roger Guthrie, despite a broken ankle, was dragging his fellow passenger Eric Frey to safety. Clark, a tow-truck driver, had extensive experience in freeing people from wrecks; so he helped Guthrie drag Frey and the plane’s unconscious pilot, David Hall, to safety. As Guthrie and Clark worked, ammunition exploded, adding to the danger.

“Somebody needed to help,” Clark says. “You do it because you have to.” (Agent Guthrie also received a Carnegie Medal, but declined to be interviewed.)

Stanton Thompson’s moment of glory came during a severe thunderstorm on the evening of September 13, 1998. Thompson, who heads a county office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was helping a friend in Concordia, Missouri, run his ice cream shop when he heard cries for help. Three boys were playing in a drainage ditch and were swept 60 feet into a storm sewer. One of the boys managed to get out, but Gregory Kueck and Cameron Holsten were clinging on to metal reinforcement bars dangerously close to a raging waterfall.

Thompson had called 911, and firefighters had arrived on the scene and were trying to lower life jackets to the boys. But Thompson is no amateur; he’s a Vietnam and Gulf War vet who’s taken advanced Red Cross training. He saw that it would take too long for the lifejackets to reach the boys, who were cold, tired, and hanging on for their lives. “I looked at the sewer, sized up my ability, and went in,” Thompson recalls.

As he walked toward Kueck, a sudden burst of water caused him to momentarily lose his balance, coming dangerously close to falling over the waterfall to his death. But Thompson managed to right himself and then grabbed a lifeline from the firefighters. He then attached lifejackets first to Kueck and then to Holsten and carried them both to safety.

“My mother and father were both farm people,” Thompson said, “and one of the things you were taught on the farm was to help a neighbor in need.” He adds that, religiously, he is “a devout person,” and that after he was originally knocked down in the water, “something—I can’t say what—allowed me to get aright in the sewer.”

With his Carnegie Hero Fund grant, Thompson has set up a trust fund for the three boys’ college education. He’s also become good friends with the boys’ parents—and makes sure he calls the boys whenever there’s bad weather. “If there’s another storm, the boys know they will hear from me,” Thompson says.

The stories of Thompson, Clark, and Purdy are typical. There are scores of other heroes discovered by the fund, most ordinary Americans whose brave feats would have remained obscure if the Carnegie Hero Fund did not exist.

Of all the awards Walter Rutkowski has handed out, the one that gives him the greatest pleasure is the case of Gerald Yoribe, who died in 1986 saving his girlfriend, Tina Jung, from the treacherous waters off of San Francisco’s Bodega Bay. The only notice of Yoribe’s feat was two paragraphs in an obscure Japanese-American weekly newspaper. “If we hadn’t found him, Yoribe would never have gotten any recognition,” Rutkowski says.

So the Carnegie Hero Fund forges on, with its unique task of finding people who risked their lives saving others. And each one of the Carnegie Medalists fulfills a command Jesus made during the Last Supper, one that’s inscribed on every Carnegie Medal: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Associate editor Martin Morse Wooster explores Andrew Carnegie’s ideas in The Great Philanthropists and the Problem of Donor Intent.

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