What is a hero? Is it a professional athlete that comes out and says he’s gay? Is it a football player that helps a kid realize a wish? What about the firefighter that rescues a toddler from a burning building? Is he or she a hero, or was that person simply doing their job? Are people in the military heroes because they wear a uniform? Or must they see combat and pull a soldier to safety? To be considered a hero, does an individual need to show exceptional bravery, or undaunted courage? Must they risk their own life to save the life of another?
The question of “what is a hero” began in earnest with the tragic events of 9/11, and has been a topic of conversation around our home ever since. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City, it became apparent that the news media increasingly described people as heroes for little more than showing an amount of courage that most would muster if they found themselves in similar circumstances. Let’s face it. Bravery is demonstrated every day when people step out of their comfort zones and refuse to compromise their principles. In that regard, aren’t we all heroes in one way or another?
The Free Dictionary defines “Hero” like this:
n. pl. he·roes
1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.
3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field: the heroes of medicine.
4. The principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation.
The second definition – a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life – is the most applicable for the purpose of this article and which leads me to the story of Lenny Skutnik.
On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 hit the 14th Street Bridge after taking off from Washington D.C’s National Airport. The plane plunged into the icy water of the Potomac River killing 78 people. It was on that day that Lenny Skutnik became a national hero.
Due to a rare Washington blizzard, Skutnik and hundreds of other commuters had gone home early. Skutnik was driving in the carpooling lane when traffic suddenly came to a stop. He got out of his car and followed a crowd of other people who were drawn to the banks of the river where the plane had crashed. He and others watched the harrowing rescue attempts of first responders. A life ring was repeatedly tossed from a hovering helicopter to a woman who was too weak to grab the ring. Taking matters into his own hands, Skutnik dove into the frigid water and saved the woman from drowning. Television cameras captured Skutnik’s valor and spread the pictures to the nation. He became an instant hero.
Ronald Reagan, who was president at the time described Skutnik’s bravery. He said, “Nothing had picked him out particularly to be a hero, but without hesitation there he was and he saved her life.”
Interviewed after his heroic rescue, Skutnik who had no life saving training, explained that he took action that day because nobody else was doing anything.
I remember watching the distressing rescue attempts of the victims of Flight 90. Bystanders and first responders stood on the shoreline watching people struggling to keep their heads above water. It seemed like an eternity and I couldn’t believe everyone was going to watch these people drown. It was a relief and a tribute to humanity when Skutnick jumped in and saved that woman from certain death.
The drowning woman on that fateful day wasn’t a hero because she was a victim of a tragedy, nor were the rescue crews who were following orders and doing their job. It was Lenny Skutnik who without consideration for his own life took matters into his own hands to save a life. His selflessness should be an example to us all.
As long as the media misuses the word hero by calling public servants, athletes, and victims of crime, heroes, I am sure our conversation will continue.