Monday, December 03, 2007


By BarbaraD'Amato

Writers of crime fiction generally subscribe to the notion that any one of us might kill if given enough provocation. Mystery novels rely on the ability of the author to show that most of the characters in the story might have dunnit. There is a belief, and not just among crime writers, that all humans have a potential for evil acts. It may be correct.

But that’s not the whole story.

I remembered vaguely the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 outside Washington D.C. in 1982. Something about a hero, I thought. But I didn’t know the details until I read an article by Christopher Mcdougall in Men’s Health online a few days ago.

It was late afternoon, January 12, freezing cold and getting colder. In high winds and snow, the plane faltered and crashed into the ice-choked Potomac River. Most of the passengers died instantly but six, badly injured, some with bones broken, fought their way out of the plane and clutched onto the cold metal of the tail.

They were forty yards from shore, where horrified would-be rescuers grasped at anything to save them. Some tried stretching utility ladders to the doomed people, but they did not reach. Mcdougall says, “One man even tried dog-paddling through the ice chunks, hauling a jury-rigged rescue rope along with him. He couldn’t get close and was nearly unconscious when they dragged him in.”

Survival time in water between thirty-two and forty degrees is fifteen to thirty minutes.

Daylight was failing when a rescue helicopter appeared. Mcdougall: “It dropped a life ring right into the hands of one of the survivors and plucked him from the water. Then things turned really strange.”

When the ring was dropped to the second person, he passed it to another of the survivors. When the plane came back, he handed the ring away again. And a third. And he handed it to the fifth survivor when he must have known he couldn’t hold on any longer. He sank into the ice-filled water.

It seemed no one would ever know who the hero was. The pilot of the helicopter said he was middle-aged and balding. But when the bodies were recovered, only one was found to have water in his lungs. He was Arland Williams Jr., from Mattoon, Illinois. Williams was neither a Navy Seal nor a religious zealot, but a bank examiner who was afraid of water. He had attended the Citadel many years before and did his military service stateside, after which he had spent his life since going from bank to bank examining their books. Williams was forty-six and had two children.

Probably he, like almost everyone later interviewed for acts like his, would have said, “I’m no hero.” If you had asked him the day before—even the hour before—whether he would give his life for five total strangers, he most likely would have said no.

Where does such altruism come from? Evolution might favor people who will go to great effort or risk to help each other out. Extreme heroism, like Mr. Williams’, is harder to explain, since the people who give their lives for others may not have offspring. It may have originated at a time when humans lived in small tribes and everyone you ever knew was related, closely or distantly, by blood. Extreme heroism saved members of the extended family.

Well, okay, but I’m finding, with all the evil in the world, I don’t care too much about where human good comes from. To crime writers, who spend a lot of time dwelling on the idea of a bit of evil in all of us, it’s a boon to think there is a bit of hero in all of us as well.

That’s my holiday gift thought to us all for the holiday season.

An interesting book cited by Mcdougall is: The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, by Lee Dugatkin.


Libby Hellmann said...

A touching story, Barb. Thank you. As it happens, I grew up in DC, and some friends of our family were on that flight. They didn't make it, but it's comforting to know they were with such a noble man as Arland Williams.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Thank you, Barb for a wonderfully positive thought when it is so easy, so often to be negative.

Michael Dymmoch said...

Thank you, Barb for a wonderfully positive thought when it is so easy, so often to be negative.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I appreciate the responses, Libby and Michael.

Mcdougall also mentioned that Andrew Carnegie, of all people, was so puzzled by extreme heroism that he established a Carnegie Hero Fund to give cash awards to civilians who save other people's lives at the risk of their own. The Commission has documented 80,000 cases of extreme heroism.

Maryann Mercer said...

I think the tragedy of 9/11 only brought into the open selfless acts of heroism that before then had been seen as few and far between, as in your story. I believe we all have that capability in us but only certain circumstances allow us to truly test it. The wonderful and yet terrible thing about heroism is that the action requires sacrifice and compassion to the extreme. Mr. Williams had both. Thanks, Barb.

Thatguy said...

What makes one a hero, is often lost in the annuals of mankind. Here, those who seem to be become a hero in the eyes of others, demonstrates that the quality coming from some unknown source.

The heroism is projected from events least expected. The quality of character surfaces in the most magnificent way, asking nothing in return and giving of oneself.

The short piece by Barbara D’Amato certainly shows that quality of heroism, reminding all of us of the better nature of man.

cmcdougall said...

barbara, i'm glad a friend forwarded me your column. it's a very smart and touching analysis of arland's actions, and adds an element to the story that i wish i'd had in my article.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Hi, Christopher--

I'm so pleased to hear from you. There was a lot in your article I just didn't have space to mention. I hope people look it up.

Writers of crime fiction have to emphasize the potential for evil, or they wouldn't have stories-- like the news programs, I guess. But there's much more than evil in the world.