Sometimes we have the idea, perhaps subconsciously, that heroes are a rare sort of breed. We mistakenly think that only truly exceptional people can be a hero. We think of someone like Mother Teresa, Oskar Schindler, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., people who everyone knows about and admires. Of course, these people have done admirable and courageous things. However, what many of us fail to realize is that everyone has the capability of being a hero. You have the capability to be a hero, and I have the capability, if we only choose to do the right thing in each circumstance life presents to us, no matter how much more convenient it would be to make another, easier choice. Sometimes, the opportunity to make a choice like that appears when we are not at all anticipating it.
One frozen January afternoon, thirty years ago, a plane crashed into the Potomac River, which flows through Washington D.C. Due to mechanical problems, human error and poor weather, Air Florida Flight 90 had barely taken off from the Washington International Airport when it plunged into the 14th Street bridge and killing four motorists before falling into the river. It then sunk beneath the icy surface.
Seventy-three passengers died upon impact. Six passengers survived the crash and managed to scramble out of the mangled plane, gathering around the slowly sinking tail section of the plane. Dozens of people watched, horrified, as these six survivors bobbed around in the freezing cold river. The weather was stormy and the river was frigid and icy. It looked impossible for the bystanders to do anything but watch as the six people slowly sank below the grey surface of the water.
Luckily, a helicopter rescue was attempted by two brave men, Donald Usher and Eugene Windsor. Another man, Lenny Skutnik, jumped into the river to drag one of the injured survivors to shore. The helicopter team managed to get close enough to the five remaining passengers floating in the water to pull them one by one to safety. At first, the rescue line was given to a middle-aged man, who passed it off to another passenger. When the helicopter came back, he did the same thing until the four other passengers had been delivered to safety. When the helicopter came back for the fifth time, the tail section had sunk, dragging the man with it.
Despite the great tragedy of the crash, and the many lives lost, his heroic actions entranced people watching this action unfold, along the river and viewers at home watching the live news coverage. This man was later identified as Arland Williams, who was a forty-six-year-old bank examiner returning home from a business trip. His selfless attitude towards perfect strangers has been analyzed by psychologists, philosophers and the media countless times over the past thirty years. They struggle to find reasons why he would have acted as he did, sacrificing his own life to ensure that the others were rescued. He was an ordinary man, and while he seemed to live a fairly good life, nothing in his life up until that point had been anything extraordinary or foreshadowed his future heroism. It seems that he simply chose to do what was right in that moment, despite the cost to him.
It is that kind of hero we are all called to be, for each other and for the pre-born children being slaughtered in our own neighborhoods. What kinds of choices will you make when you have the opportunity to save their lives?