A few Saturdays ago, I was listening to a Radio Lab segment entitled “The Good Show” on National Public Radio, in which the producers and hosts were exploring what compels people to act in selfless and courageous ways for the benefit of others, often complete strangers. The piece centered, in part, on the story of Wesley James Autrey, a 50 year-old New York City construction worker. It seems that, on January 2, 2007, Autrey jumped onto the track bed at NYC’s 137th Street – City College subway station in an effort to save Cameron Hollopeter, a 20-year-old film student, who had fallen onto the tracks and faced almost certain death from an approaching train. That fact, standing alone, would be incredible enough, but it is the “rest of the story” that kept me glued to the radio. Perhaps it’s best if I just let Autrey and the Radio Lab hosts pick up it up from here:
Host: “When we finally met up with Wesley on the platform where this incident happened – the 137th Street – City College Station – he explained to us that his daughters had been with him that day! How old were your daughters at the time?”
Wesley: “They were 4 and 6,” he said, showing the host a wallet size photo of the two.
Host: “Oh my God – super cute! So the three of them are standing there and this [6’ tall, 180 lb.] guy starts convulsing and eventually falls off the platform and onto the tracks right as a training is coming. Autrey’s choice is pretty stark: In order to save this complete stranger, he’s got to leave his daughters behind – potentially without a dad.”
Wesley: “So, I’m looking at him shaking and going into another seizure. For some strange reason, a voice came out of nowhere and said: ‘Don’t worry about your own, don’t worry about your daughters. You can do this.’”
Host: “So he jumps. Runs to the guy (he’s unconscious) and tries to grab his hand.”
Wesley: “Each time I grab his hand, we slip apart. I’d grab, he’d slip. I look up and see the train is getting closer. I grab his hand again, we slip apart – the train is getting closer still. 100 feet, 50 feet . . .”
Host: “And then it’s right there and all Autrey can do is grab the guy, get him in a bear hug and flatten his body against the guy as much as he can [sound of a train speeding by in the background]. “
Wesley: “The first train car just grazed my calves. And when the train came to a stop, after 45 cars passed over us, I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Excuse me, you seemed to have a seizure or something. You don’t know me and I don’t know you.’ So I just kept talking to him until he came to and he was like, ‘Where are we?’ And I said, ‘We’re underneath a train.’ He said, ‘Who are you?’ And I said, ‘I came down here to save your life.’ So he kept asking me, ‘Are we dead? Are we in heaven?’ I gave him a slight pinch on his arm. He said, ‘Ouch!’ I said, ‘See, you’re very much alive!’”
Host: “Did you ever ask yourself at this point, ‘What am I doing here?!?’ I mean, he asked what he was doing there. Didn’t you ask the same question?”
Wesley: “Well, I could hear the two ladies who had my daughters between their legs. I could hear my daughters screaming. So, when the train came to a stop, I yelled out from underneath it, ‘Excuse me, I’m their father. We’re okay. I just want to let my daughters know that I’m okay, because I know they’re worried about me.’ Everybody started clapping.”
Host: “Can I ask you a question: So, the point at which you said you heard a voice that said, ‘you can do this’ – what is amazing to me is that you left your daughters right here and dived down after a guy you didn’t even know.”
Wesley: “Well, he was a stranger, a total stranger. But, you know what, the mission wasn’t completed. I was chosen for that. I felt like I was the chosen one for that moment.”
Host: “Wow! But for a religious person, I would wonder: ‘Why me?’”
Wesley: “Well, you know what? Maybe 20 years ago, I was supposed to be at a certain place . . .”
Host: “And then he explained to us exactly why he had jumped. He was the one guy who could do that. He said that right before his feet left the platform this one specific moment from his life flashed to mind.”
Wesley: “This thing happened. I had a gun put to my temple and the trigger was pulled, but it misfired . . .”
Host: “A gun was put to your head?!? So, you were almost dead?”
Wesley: “I was almost dead.”
Host: “So you think you might have been spared for a purpose?”
Wesley: “I was spared for a reason.”
Host: “After that moment, he said, when the gun went ‘click’ and he didn’t die, he always wondered, why God had spared him in that moment, until he was on the subway platform and he saw the guy fall off and he said then he knew. This is why.
Wesley: “I can do this. That voice . . . when that voice said ‘you’re going to be okay’ I knew everything was going to work out.”
As I listened intently to Autrey’s story and reflected on it in the days that followed, it occurred to me that there is much for all of us to learn from his selfless and courageous act: that when it comes to someone in need, there’s no such thing as a stranger; that, while (thankfully) few of us will ever experience the horror of having a gun pointed at our head, the relief of it misfiring, our life being saved not once but twice or the opportunity to save the life of another, all of us have a purpose in life that likely will include one day being there for someone in need; and that it is worth our wondering what that purpose is and being ever vigilant for the opportunity to make it manifest. Indeed, I’m certain that, like his rescuer before him, Cameron’s sense of wonder began the moment he crawled out from underneath that train.
But what strikes me as most profound about that day is the message Autrey quite unknowingly, but powerfully delivered to his daughters: “If, on a moment’s notice, my dad would quite literally and unhesitatingly lay down his life for a complete stranger, what wouldn’t he be willing to do for me, a little girl he loves most dearly, in the hour of my greatest need?” Now, I’m certainly not about to suggest that you jump in front of a fast-moving train to make that statement to your daughter or your son (or anyone you hold dear for that matter), but I am suggesting, in the strongest terms, that you find a way to make it and that you do it sooner rather than later. Because it is a message all of us need to hear, especially our daughters, a truth they/we can cling to when that hour – their/our hour – inevitably arrives.