Profiles in courage: Psychologists say heroes share core personality traits

Atlanta Journal - Constitution

(Copyright, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution - 2002)

We call them heroes. We celebrate their feats with stories, hold banquets to toast them and hand them plaques, medals and even cash. Who wouldn't cheer a man who pulls a toddler from a burning car seconds before it explodes? Or a man who administers CPR to a stricken father as two children hover frantically nearby? Of course we honor the two men who crawled inside a burning van to pull three strangers from certain death.

They are celebrated because of their rarity. "There are very few people who actually get involved these days," said Dr. Paul Fink, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association and a professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "People aren't going to get hurt or deal with cops. And there's terrible fear of retribution. If it's a choice between helping someone or protecting themselves, people will protect themselves." Experts have a term for the rest of us, who watch or simply turn away. It's called "bystander apathy." And it's nothing new. Since the first caveman looked the other way as a buddy was dragged off by a saber-toothed tiger, people have been forced to make decisions about whether to get involved. Like the hundreds of commuters who chose to drive by a burning van on the morning of May 14. The van, with five men inside, lost power on Ga. 400 and was rammed from behind by a tractor trailer. The van caught fire and crossed several lanes of traffic and the grassy median before flipping on its side in the emergency lane. Only three commuters stopped to help. "I pulled over, and when I opened my door to get out, people were blowing their horns and yelling at me to get out of the way," said John Mercer, a home remodeler and window installer who was on his way to work when he saw the wreck. Mercer, who had four years of training as a search and rescue team member in the Marines, said his only thought was "I'm the closest one to them, so I'm in the best position to help." Russell Bodin, an off-duty DeKalb County police officer, also stopped. So did Stanley Lovell, a service manager for Southern Dock Products in Norcross. Lovell was the only one who didn't have formal rescue training. "My mother always told me if I could help somebody, I should do it," Lovell said. One man crawled out on his own, but Bodin and Mercer crawled into the burning van through the shattered windshield to drag the unconcious men to safety. They managed to get three of the men out, but the fourth was tangled in his seatbelt. Finally, they had to pull back as the flames engulfed the van. "I know some of those people who drove right by had a knife on them," Mercer said, still angry a month after the accident. "If any of them had stopped to help, we could have gotten that last guy out." Psychological experts call the type of avoidance that angered Mercer "a diffusion of responsibility." Dr. Bibb Latane, a former psychology professor who has studied the phenomenon, found that the more people who witness an event, the less likely they are to react. "If you're alone, you have it on your conscience the rest of your life," Latane said. "But if you're one of 20 people, then yeah, you should have done something, but so should they." Latane and other researchers began studying witness reactions after the infamous Kitty Genovese case in 1964. Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager, was repeatedly stabbed and raped over 35 minutes on a street in a quiet New York City neighborhood. At least 38 people watched, listened and knew. But none of them called the police or tried to help. One of Latane's studies found that when one person was in a test room that suddenly had smoke pumped into it, 75 percent of them got up to investigate. But when two people were in the same smoke- filled room, 10 percent got up to check. A similar situation happened in Little Five Points in April, when two black men were savagely beaten by two white men and a white woman, in an incident that resulted in hate-crime charges. Witnesses estimated that anywhere from 15 to 40 people watched, but no one tried to stop it. "I think everybody was afraid because the guy was so big and the beating was so bad," said Ariette Bolden, who was there with four children ranging in age from several months to 14 years. "I've seen some beat downs in my time, but nothing like that. There was nothing anyone could have done to help, to stop it." The people charged in the attack are all large, physically intimidating people. And although no one jumped in, experts said the witnesses did try to help. Several called 911 on their cell phones and others yelled at the attackers to stop. After the attack, witnesses also stuck around. "People were lining up to give the cops their names. Everyone wanted to testify against these three," said David Simpson, a business owner who witnessed the attacks. In addition to a hate crime, the three have been charged with aggravated battery and reckless conduct, among other crimes. And heroes certainly need to be cautious. Jeffrey Dooley, investigations manager for the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, one of the best-known programs that recognizes heroes each year, said about 21 percent of the people awarded a Carnegie medal die in their attempts to help someone else. That was the case with Randy Burris of Athens, who was killed last year when he pushed a woman and her baby out of the way of a car. And earlier this month, two rescuers were killed and four others, including three Atlanta-area people, were injured when they stopped to help a couple returning from their honeymoon whose car had overturned on I-75 in Central Florida. As the six people, including two firemen, a nurse and a doctor, crowded around the truck in the pouring rain, a tractor trailer slammed into them. Florida firefighter Shane Kelly, 25, and Donald Diebel Jr., a Florida obstetrician, were killed. Cindy Marshall, a Smyrna nurse, her boyfriend, Jack Cornett, and William Callier, a Cobb County fireman, all received broken bones. "I can't tell you how many times I've stopped to help at traffic accidents," said Marshall, who has finished her training to become a paramedic. She was moved to Northside Hospital on June 14, where she works as an emergency room technician. "I don't know how people can just drive by." And despite her injuries --- she has a broken leg and ankle, multiple fractures of her right arm and ribs, bruises and torn ligaments in her left leg, arm and head and back injuries --- she says she'd do it again. Especially now that she knows what it's like from the other end. "The worst part for me was when I was in the ditch, I watched people drive by and take enough time to roll down the window and look at me, and they didn't know if I was dead or alive, but they kept driving by," Marshall said, her voice catching as she fought back tears. When heroes are asked why they help, they often say they feel obligated to do it, or they do it because they hope others would if their family was in danger. E. Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech who is working on a study of people who come to the aid of others, said rescuers usually have higher self-esteem, a keener sense of belonging to society, believe they can succeed, are optimistic and feel they have control over their own lives. "If you think you're valuable, you'll think others are valuable too," Geller said. "If you know you can make things happen, effect change, then you're more likely to step in." Men also are much more likely to respond. Dooley said only about 9 percent of medal recipients are women. Samuel Oliner, a recently retired professor of sociology at Humboldt State University in California, is writing a book on the motivation of Carnegie Heroes, people who have put themselves at risk to save others. Oliner said people who feel they are part of a larger community, whether it's a church, fraternity, the military or even a social or sporting group, also are more likely to act. "They have learned empathy, social responsibility, they have a sense of justice and a self confidence that they can make a difference," Oliner said. That could explain why Chris Draft stopped on April 28 when he saw the car ahead of him hit a wall on I-85. Draft, a linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons, makes a living with his body, yet he put himself at risk when his buddy yelled the car was on fire. "Once my friend said 'fire,' there was no way I'd let that guy burn up in that car. Either we were going to get out together or blow up together," Draft said. "I really wasn't worried; I wasn't thinking I need to save myself. Maybe it's from playing football. I'm used to doing what's best for the team." Heroes also tend to be risk takers, experts say, even if they don't appear it on the surface. Kevin Snyder is a bankruptcy attorney with Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs in Atlanta. A Peachtree City resident, he has a wife, daughter and son. But when he encountered a burning car on I-85 in Union City on his way home from work in February 2001, he didn't hesitate. While other commuters watched, Snyder and Chris Womack, a Georgia Power employee, broke out the car windows of the burning Honda Accord. Snyder, a former Army helicopter pilot who flew dangerous night and rescue missions in Alaska, worked to quickly get the two adults and two of the children from the car, even while pausing to put out the flames as his own shoes and pants caught fire. But 2-year-old Jayln Pouncil was trapped in her car seat, and the men couldn't release it. As they both worked frantically, smoke filled the burning vehicle. Finally, Womack pulled the driver's seat up enough for Snyder, who was stretched across the interior of the car, to free the car seat. Even as he lost consciousness from the smoke, Snyder was able to lurch back through the car window, the seat and Jayln clutched to his chest. Womack dragged them to safety seconds before the car exploded into a 20-foot fireball. "I have children," said Snyder, 34, who in December was awarded the Carnegie Hero Fund medal and $3,500. "I couldn't let them just burn to death like that." Children are what spurred John Burnett of Conyers to act, even though they weren't the ones in danger. Burnett was at a local dirt track when a man collapsed after his motorcycle hit a wall. "His two boys were with him, and they were yelling for help and calling 911 on his cell phone," said Burnett, a construction worker. "Nobody was helping, and I couldn't just stand there." Burnett started administering CPR, even though he'd never actually taken a class. But he managed to keep Drady Henley alive until help came. While some experts say people are less likely to help today than they were 50 years ago, others disagree. Oliner, who was rescued by a family friend at age 12 from Nazi-occupied Poland while the rest of his family perished, said he thinks people today look out more for each other. "Maybe I'm just an optimistic old man, but I see hope despite the hate groups and the evil that is still around us every day," Oliner said. "But people need to quit dividing themselves between 'us and them,' 'we and they.' We need to look for our similarities, not our differences."

Photo John Mercer / Staff Photo On April 28, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Chris Draft helped pull a man from a blazing car on I-85./ Staff Graphic WHAT YOU CAN DO Experts say witnesses often feel guilty because they didn't react or didn't react appropriately when they saw a horrific event unfolding before their eyes. But there are some things people can do that will make it more likely that they will be able to help. Here are some tips: > Get training: Enroll in a CPR, first aid or a Red Cross lifeguard certification course. People who know what to do are more likely to act. > Think about what you would do: Gymnasts run through their routines before they perform to improve their responses. If people think about ways they could react to an emergency, it won't be so frightening. > Carry items that can help: A hero who rescued five people from a burning car now keeps in his vehicles a fire extinguisher and a tool that can be used to break windows and cut tangled seat belts. > Don't be frozen: If it would be too dangerous to jump into a fight, you can still call the police, then yell at the attackers that the police are on their way. Throw something at them, or spray them with a hose. If a business is nearby, grab its fire extinguisher and spray the attackers. > Be a leader: Often, witnesses wait for others to act. If someone takes charge and asks others to help, often they will. Source: Staff research Photo Kevin Snyder (left, with his family) was awarded a Carnegie Hero Fund medal after he helped save five people from a burning car on I- 85 in Union City. / Staff Photo The men above risked their lives helping motorists in metro Atlanta wrecks: (from left) Stanley Lovell, Russell Bodin and John Mercer acted selflessly May 14 after a van carrying five men on Ga. 400 was in a fiery crash; on April 28, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Chris Draft helped pull a man from a blazing car on I-85./ Photos by LOUIE FAVORITE, CRAIG SCHNEIDER and PHIL SKINNER / Staff Photo Russell Bodin / Staff