"Citizen Heroes" Put Their Lives on the Line for Others
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The newest “class” of extraordinary men and women honored by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission exemplify Andrew Carnegie’s belief that—yes, even today—“we live in an age of heroes.”
They ran into burning buildings. They fought off gunmen. They saved fellow citizens from vicious animal attacks and even from an oncoming freight train. At a Fourth of July outing, one young man plunged—unhesitatingly—into a lake in an attempt to save a drowning man. Tragically, both perished.
These brave men and women, everyday citizens, are now officially named as heroes. Their remarkable acts of bravery have recently been cited for recognition by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. A total of 23 individuals from throughout the United States and Canada were honored with the Carnegie Medal for their acts of valor.
These newly minted Carnegie heroes also receive a financial reward from the Commission, which was established in 1904 by Andrew Carnegie to honor acts of heroism outside the norms of official duty. Its values are summed up in Carnegie’s founding mandate: “Whenever heroism is displayed by man or woman in saving human life, the Fund applies.”
The most recent batch of heroes joins the ranks of nearly 10,000 previous Carnegie Medal recipients. One of the new heroes and about 20 percent of the medal recipients from the Commission’s 112-year history paid the ultimate price: they sacrificed their lives in their efforts to save the lives of others.
Heroes are presented with a personalized Carnegie Medal attesting to their selfless actions as well a monetary reward. Scholarship aid for the heroes or family members, death benefits, grants, and other forms of financial support may also be provided. This aid is in keeping with Andrew Carnegie’s explicit insistence that neither those “injured in heroic effort to save human life” nor their families should suffer financial consequences due to their brave acts.
At a time when the news seems to be filled with nothing but barbaric acts against humanity, the Carnegie Medal awards provide examples of “everything that is good with the human experience,” says Eric Zahren, executive director of the Carnegie Hero Commission Fund. “Through the sacrifice of heroes, who put themselves at risk and often lose their lives to save another, the Carnegie Hero Commission is able to shine a light . . . through the darkness and illuminate the very best of our capacity to care for each other.”
“Each of our heroes saw someone in peril and in the instant recognized that the two of them shared an equal claim on life,” observes Mark Laskow, chair of the Carnegie Hero Commission Fund.
Promising Young Man Makes Ultimate Sacrifice
That’s what prompted new Carnegie Medal awardee Calindo C. Fletcher, Jr., of Huntsville, Alabama, to come to the rescue of a kayaker who appeared to be drowning. Seeing that the man was in distress, former high school football standout Fletcher dove into the water, grievously injuring himself during the attempted rescue. He tried—without success—to save another, and Fletcher himself could not be saved, succumbing to his injuries two days later.
Fletcher was just twenty when he lost his life. Announcing his death on Facebook, Fletcher’s Buckhorn High School described their former student as shy and polite—and as a “hero among heroes."
The newest batch of Carnegie Medal winners also includes citizens who fought off a nearly 100-pound pit bull in mid-attack, while another braved a 12-foot-high wall of flames and intense smoke to rescue two people from a burning bus. They range from a 16-year-old who suffered burns in a fire rescue to two 60-year-olds, including a hospital supervisor who suffered a heart attack after helping subdue an assailant who had shot one police officer and was trying to shoot another one.
Executive Director Zahren has a special perspective on the sacrifices made by Carnegie heroes. As a former high-level agent with the U.S. Secret Service, he was expertly trained to defend and even to take a bullet for the president and other dignitaries. “It just gives me more of an appreciation of what they did, lacking the training, lacking the equipment that would provide safety for themselves,” Zahren marvels. “It is really just amazing.”
A look at some of the new Carnegie Medal winners and their extraordinary acts
Ashley Marie Aldridge
In September 2015, Aldridge, a 19-year-old homemaker and mother of two, was looking out of her window when she witnessed a man getting stuck while trying to cross railroad tracks in his motorized wheelchair. In desperation, the man called out for help as a train approached—at nearly 80 miles an hour, activating the crossing gates and warning lights.
Although she was barefoot, Aldridge ran to help the 75-year-old man, disregarding the dangers. “With the train bearing down on them,” according to her Carnegie Medal résumé, Aldridge pulled on the man. It took two attempts for the young mother to pull Earl Moorman out of the wheelchair—and with only seconds to spare. In a flash, the train struck and destroyed the wheelchair.
But Earl Moorman was safely on the ground, on the side of the tracks, out of harm’s way, thanks to the inspired bravery of Ashley Marie Aldridge.
Christopher T. DePaoli
While driving his daughters to a softball game in Irvington, New York, in April 2015, DePaoli noticed a woman being accosted. He quickly realized that Deborah Henry was being stabbed, so the 53-year-old stopped his car and grabbed a softball bat from inside his vehicle.
Without regard to his own safety, DePaoli intervened to save the woman. “Wielding the bat, he ran toward the assailant,” according to his Carnegie Medal award summary. “DePaoli stepped between him and Henry and forced the assailant about 10 feet away.”
Police officers eventually subdued the attacker, while the victim was taken to the hospital. Fortunately, Deborah Henry was able to recover from serious stab wounds because Chris DePaoli had stepped in to save her life.
Ronaldo R. Romo, Jr.
Performing a double act of heroism, Romo saved a father and his young son from a burning vehicle in Shrewsbury, Missouri, in April 2015. Driving by the scene of a crash, 32-year-old Romo pulled a trapped man through the flames that were engulfing his sport utility vehicle.
As he led the father to safety, Romo learned that the man's son was still inside the vehicle. “Romo returned to the burning car,” notes his Carnegie Medal résumé, and freed the child from his car seat. Trent and young Leo Pappan were both rescued by Romo in the nick of time, before a deadly fireball consumed their vehicle.
Carnegie’s Values Still Alive in the Millennial Era
Technologically, much has happened since Andrew Carnegie endowed the Hero Commission with $5 million in U.S. Steel bonds in 1904.
Carnegie was inspired to fund the commission by the bravery he saw in the aftermath of the deadly Pennsylvania Harwick coal mine disaster that claimed 181 lives, including those of two rescuers. Carnegie funded efforts for the families of the miners who perished and struck medals to honor the fallen rescuers, a forerunner of the Carnegie Medal and the commission that was established months later.
Hero Fund Commission investigators once traveled miles and miles to check out Medal nominees. Although they still require exacting proof of a nominee's act of heroism, investigators now more commonly use the telephone and the Internet for vetting. In fact, today potential Carnegie heroes can be nominated via an online form.
Based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Andrew Carnegie’s formative home, the Commission is active on social media. Digital outreach efforts include not only Facebook and Twitter, providing great examples for #MotivationMonday, but the Commission also maintains an active Tumblr presence.
It may use 21st-century technology, but the Carnegie Hero Commission remains true to the principles set out by its founder in 1904. From the first, the Commission recognized heroism by all citizens—including women, minorities, and Native Americans, and this at a time when their lifesaving acts of valor might otherwise have gone unheralded.
Today, despite the popular portrayals of millennials as self-absorbed and obsessed with their cell phones, a number of the new Carnegie heroes come from just that age group. Executive Director Eric Zahren says learning the facts often shatters societal stereotypes. “It takes away a lot of the preconceived notions,” he explains. “You get a chance to evaluate people based on their actions . . . of putting someone else before themselves.”
Andrew Carnegie's vision “is as much at the center of the Commission's daily work today as it was 112 years ago,” declares Zahren. “It is our constant guide and only point of reference.”