On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 left Laguardia Airport, bound for Charlotte, North Carolina. As the Airbus A320 climbed over New York City, it struck a flock of geese, and lost thrust in both engines. The crew turned the plane south over the Hudson River back towards the airport, and attempted in vain to restart the engines. Minutes later, the crew guided the plane to a perfect water landing on the Hudson River, and evacuated all 155 people on board safely.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger became a hero that day for saving the lives of everyone on board. But he wasn’t the only hero involved. If you listen to the recordings of that day, you will hear the voices of many other heroes you have never heard of.
Patrick Harten was an air traffic controller for New York departures that day. While Captain Sully kept the plane under control and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles grabbed important information from the manual, Mr. Harten and his co-workers were talking to three airports and shutting down runways to clear that plane to land. (Other voices are labelled only as LGA Tower Cab Coordinator, LGA South Control, 461-Sierra-Alpha, and 152-Tango-Alpha.)
And unless you do some research, you won’t hear the names of ferry captains Vincent Lombardi or Brittany Catanzaro, who arrived within four minutes to rescue evacuees from the freezing water. You won’t hear the names of the paramedics, rescue divers, firefighters, helicopter pilots, boat operators or police officers who rushed to the scene to help, or the dispatchers, doctors, nurses, trauma counsellors and other professionals who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to coordinate the efforts and help everyone recover.
In the days and weeks following the crash, while talk shows heaped praise on Captain Sully, Patrick Harten took a leave of absence to recover from, as he put it, “the lowest low” he had ever felt.
It seems the only one who acknowledged the skill of air traffic controllers and the heroism of the first responders is Captain Sullenberger himself, who described the rescue this way:
It was amazing. It was crucial. It was life-saving – literally… ‘Thank you’ seems totally inadequate. I have a debt of gratitude I fear I may never be able to repay, to the first responders. To all of them.
As the hero worship of the world focused on Sully as the one who saved the day, he struggled through his own self-doubt, and finally learned to accept the praise with humility:
I don’t feel comfortable embracing it, but I don’t want to deny it. I don’t want to diminish their thankful feeling toward me by telling them that they’re wrong… I’m beginning to understand why they might feel that way. Something about this episode has captured people’s imagination. I think they want good news. I think they want to feel hopeful again. If I can help in that way, I will.
What makes a hero? Why do we worship some heroes, but not others? Why do we recognize some great acts of courage, but not others? Why do we pick out one team member to focus on, when hundreds of people contributed to the outcome? Why do some heroes make the news and others don’t?
I can’t answer those questions. (If you can, leave a comment below.)
But I can talk about those heroes who don’t make the news – the heroes that live right here, down the street. I need to recognize them. They make me feel hopeful again, to know that I live in a city surrounded by countless heroes who do their jobs anonymously every day. My gratitude will not be diminished just because they do not win awards.
So, here’s to the heroes whose names will never be mentioned, you who quietly smile when the paper says “the affected families received assistance,” knowing it was you and your team specifically that showed up with help and hope at a desperate time.
I want to recognize, not the caped avenger but the capable workhorse out in the field, pulling for someone who felt alone until you arrived. The fire chief who brought donuts and coffee to the scene. The Red Cross volunteer who brought blankets and teddy bears for the kids who suddenly became homeless. The hotel manager who bends the rules a bit to get that family into a warm bed for the night. The social worker who put in some free overtime to find a place for them to live on short notice and connect them with a kind-hearted landlord.
On the 6:00 news you see a smoking house and firefighters climbing ladders. What you don’t see is the brokenness of someone who lost what little they had, and now comes to you with nothing but the clothes on their back. You find them the resources they need to keep going. Better than getting a statue erected in your honour is hearing the words “Now I don’t have to tell my little girl there’s nothing to eat today.”
Here’s to the heroes who leave the phone on at night because you never know when dispatch is going to send you into a hot zone where people need your help right now, not in the morning after a good night’s sleep, because those people don’t have the luxury of going back to bed so you don’t either.
On the 6:00 news you hear about forest fires, earthquakes and tornadoes. They don’t tell you about the people you’ve met personally, the six thousand people waiting in evacuation shelters on hastily erected cots, sipping donated coffee, waiting for someone to tell them if their homes and businesses are still standing. While your friends complain about the rain or the smoke and poor visibility back in town, you are already a hundred miles down the road, rushing to go help.
Here’s to the heroes who drive a full day to a disaster site and then hit the ground running, helping until they can barely move. After being up 25 hours straight they fall into bed exhausted, and then get up 6 hours later to do it all over again, their feet aching the moment they hit the floor, but walking it off, because the pain they are here to carry is not their own.
While your friends are on Facebook saying “somebody should,” you are the one already doing.
While people grumble about the homeless problem, you are the volunteer showing up day after day at the Habitat for Humanity building site, building homes for those who cannot afford them.
While your boss’s boss is on TV talking about the organization’s successes, you are in the basement at the depot sorting through donations, cans with cans, clothing with clothing, throwing bags on piles.
You are the ones cutting the grass, stacking the boxes, writing the grant proposals, answering the phones, driving the van, setting up chairs, laundering the sheets, mopping up vomit, calming the addict, taking the abuse, cleaning the toilets, holding the helpless, comforting the afflicted. No one knows your name, because the volunteer in the basement with the mop never makes the news. But if it weren’t for you, none of this would be here. Without you, millions would be left to fend for themselves.
There would be no bed for the homeless, no food for the hungry, no visits to the elderly, no funding for the program, no clean floors, no clean sheets, no money to keep the lights and heat on.
And you can’t talk about it. You’ve signed a confidentiality agreement. While your friend is posting pictures of the muffins she baked, tweeting the 5km run or showing off the new bike, you’re saving a life and then going home quietly to tell your spouse. There are no victory laps, no reporters calling you, no tweets, no selfies. Just the amazing feeling you get from saving the world.
The people closest to you know a bit about what you do. Your closest friends say “thank you for doing this” when you leave a party early to take an urgent call and run off to help someone. Your organization puts on an annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner. You get to share victory stories with your co-workers.
And the best recognition of all, the smiles and thanks from the people you help, and on a good day, a warm hug.
There is no superhero coming to save us, no man of steel in a red cape, but there are hundreds of people who walk among us undetected, and they are the heroes that our city needs. You are making our society great and building a community worth living in.
Here’s to the heroes who don’t make the news. Here’s to you.