Sunday, January 3, 2010

Three Years Later: Remembering Wesley Autrey

Posted by Patrick

Walking to my subway stop last night, I saw what I first thought was an oddly garish display of Christmas lights, then realized were at least seven, maybe ten different emergency vehicles. Fire fighters were heading down the subway stairs. This was disturbing enough by itself, but it also seemed to mirror the thoughts I’d been having all day. For some reason, yesterday morning I had remembered that three years before on that day, I had brushed against a momentous event at the same station. Below are some of my thoughts from that day. You can go here if you want to read the unedited, thinking-it-through version.  My impressions that day were later fleshed out or corrected by news reports, but here I've tried to share my experience of that day, mistakes and all. 

January 2nd, 2007

Just before 1pm, I was walking into my local subway station. As I slid my card through the turnstile, a crowd of people rushed to the station agent screaming. "There are people on the track, a train is coming, ya gotta stop it!" I looked up to see the 1 train had indeed stopped, about a quarter of the way in the station. Unfortunately it had already run over two men.

A crowd of us rushed over to see what had happened; nearby stood a young woman and a young girl, both of them in tears. A middle-aged woman asked what had happened, and from various witnesses we pieced together the story. Apparently one man had had a seizure which knocked him onto the tracks. A second man dove after him, but had not been able to get him to safety before the train ran over them both. The Good Samaritan was the father of the young girl (I learned from news reports later that he had another young daughter there as well, but somehow I failed to pick up on that at the time. The young woman was a stranger who had stepped up to watch the girls when their father dove onto the tracks). When she learned this, the middle-aged woman went over to the edge of the tracks. "Are you okay?" she called down. One of the men responded. "Hear that?" she asked the girl, "He's okay." She had him speak a few more times, each time looking at the crying girl. "Hear that? He's okay."

By this point there were a million cops on the scene, followed soon thereafter by an equal number of fire fighters. The Good Samaritan reassured everyone that he and the other guy were fine. The train passengers were slowly escorted off, clearly perplexed by what had happened. I realized that those of us on the platform had more information; they rarely tell you anything on the trains. I was tempted to stay to see that both men were okay, but realized that I was not helping the situation by standing around gawking, so I left and caught a now jam-packed bus downtown to drop off a grant application and meet a friend.

I spent my bus ride downtown, and most of the afternoon close to tears, not a common experience for me, despite my volatile Celtic nature. It wasn't really the thought of death; I believed both men were going to be fine. It was more the sense that I had glimpsed people rising to an occasion, seeing people in trouble and responding lovingly without a second thought. It wasn't just the heroism of the man who saved the young guy's life, though that was obviously awe-inspiring. It wasn't just the crowd of people who tried to stop the train when they saw the men fall. I found myself thinking again and again of the woman who kept telling the little girl, "Hear that? He's okay." I think all of us there wanted to help, and were frustrated by the fact that there really wasn't anything we could do; the experts were already on the scene, we were mostly just in the way. But that woman found something to do. She had the presence of mind to see a need and fill it. Maybe what she did doesn't seem like much, but if you were eight years old and thought you had just seen your father killed, wouldn't you want some reassurance? I was 40 years old, didn't know this guy from Adam's off-ox and I wanted to know he was okay. The rescue workers were all doing their jobs getting the two men to safety, they didn't have time to notice one little girl was confused, frightened and suffering. That woman couldn't get the men to safety. But she did what she could.  That act of kindness continues to stick with me.  (Some reports later said Autrey himself asked people to reassure his daughters he was all right.  If that's true, it increases my admiration for him, without decreasing any for the woman who fulfilled his request.)

January 3rd, 2010

Back then I feared I would never learn what happened; I’ve been in the subway when five or more entire lines were shut down without explanation, or later news reports. Fortunately this event was heroic enough that it was picked up by local, then national news sources. The Good Samaritan, Wesley Autrey, was rightly honored for a while, even going on Letterman. He was never more than a voice to me that day, but I remember him with admiration. That unnamed woman who comforted his daughters also sticks with me; I kept hoping I’d see her again after that, so I could thank her for her own quick thinking, but I never did. In the following days Autrey seemed largely unsure what all the fuss was about. I’m sure that woman has no clue that she comforted more than just Autrey’s little girls.

Another memory from that day is the experience of a palpable, almost physical expression of compassion that formed in the crowd. Most of us did nothing more than stand around looking concerned, then filing quietly out of the station when we realized that was the best step. But the group energy that formed was overwhelming.  Love as a physical force channeled through people seems to be turning into a theme in my life. I’ve had many experiences of it in the last four years, and each time I try to write about it, the attempts are pretty hackneyed. They keep happening though, knock wood, and I’ll keep trying to write about them. Maybe there’s a less shopworn word than love to use, but I haven’t come up with one yet.

To be honest though, probably the only long term effect of that day for me has been a slight expansion of imagination when I’m inconvenienced by public transportation. I still get as grumpy as ever, don't get me wrong, but most of the time now I also remember to think, “I hope everyone is all right.” So far I’ve been unable to find out what happened yesterday. When I came home three hours later everything was normal again. I’m just left hoping that everyone is all right, that if it was necessary, more people rose to the occasion and did what they could.


  1. Powerful words, my friend. The English language is bankrupt when it comes to expressing words of love. I mean love can mean anything from rutting in bed with our soulmate to cheering for our favorite team. I personally love the Biblical Koine Greek which has words like philios, agape, and eros; all of which describe manifestations of that great emotion.

    In the meantime; get as verbose as you need to share that great emotion with us!

  2. That was a terrific essay, Patrick. The Daily News has a story saying that Autrey and the guy he saved, Cameron Hollopeter, reunited for the first time over dinner last week.
    New York magazine had a fascinating article about Autrey back in April 2007. Sadly, he got taken in by leeches who got him to sign a contract giving them half of any money he gets from commercial use of his "name, personality, story and reputation." It sounds like his sister has his back, though.