Wednesday, August 4, 5:40 PM. Outside Screen Gems Film Studios, Wilmington, NC.
A large white Toyota pickup truck suddenly accelerated out of the studio parking lot into dense traffic, crashing broad side into a gold Lincoln Aviator. The SUV spun out of control into two lanes of fast, oncoming cars, rocked back and forth violently, and flipped over onto the driver's side, sliding with a loud metallic screech toward many other drivers desperately breaking and swerving to avoid a pile up of secondary crashes.
The scene looked like one from the movies filmed at the studio. It could have involved a crew of stunt specialists. A young man going to work was in that stream of traffic, and saw the event unfold. As soon as he noticed the white pickup barreling onto the busy street, he thought, "This is not going to be good." The instant he saw the Lincoln flip, he slammed on breaks, jumped out of his car, and ran straight for the overturned vehicle. Climbing up onto the battered and smashed side now facing the sky, he confronted a badly buckled door and smelled smoke, as he saw three people trapped inside.
Those people were my wife, daughter, and granddaughter.
Using all his strength, the young hero was determined to defy the warping damage and weight of gravity to force open the door. My wife pulled herself up and out toward him as he managed to get the upturned passenger door pried loose. He helped her to safety and into the arms of a Screen Gems medic, who had instantly appeared, since he was on scene, ironically, as the driver of the pickup that had rammed the car. She thanked him. He said, "Don't thank me. I'm the one who hit you. I'm so sorry." He began medical examinations and treatments on the spot. While this was happening, about ten other men ran from nearby buildings, cars, and trucks, to get to the overturned vehicle.
My twenty-nine year old daughter lay on an airbag over the crushed window of her driver side door as our six year old granddaughter hung suspended in the belts of her 5 point booster seat, dangling from the side of the car farthest from the ground, and eerily silent but for the word, "Mama." In a regular booster seat, she may not have survived. Mama kept her head and managed to release her from the car seat, while keeping her from falling to the ground. Men from the studio and others driving home from work surrounded the wreck, opening the back gate and reaching in to call the young woman and child to safety.
These men hadn't driven on, with mere concern, and perhaps a 911 call. They stopped what they were doing, put aside where they had to be, and took action in an instant. An ordinary rush hour in an ordinary town suddenly experienced a moment of real heroics.
At a time when we've professionalized nearly everything and left most difficult matters to trained experts, no one waited for the EMTs or the Fire Department or the Police to arrive. They launched themselves into an uncertain situation of apparent danger in order to do what needed to be done. And they brought three lives to safety.
The ladies of my family spent hours in the local emergency room in the presence of concerned friends, being checked for internal organ damage and broken bones. When they were released, with an assurance that they had apparently, and miraculously, avoided the worst outcomes from this sort of accident, they found ten more friends in the waiting room who'd sat there for hours just to offer support. People who had seen the totaled SUV expressed astonishment that anyone could walk away from it as they had.
I was in Sundance, Utah, more than two thousand miles from home at the time of the accident, giving philosophical presentations for a prominent health care company. I was without cell phone service in my cabin on the mountain, and had only spotty internet coverage. My first word on what had happened came by email minutes after the fact with a cell phone picture of my daughter's Aviator overturned in the middle of the busy road. While I pieced together what was happening, I involved friends from all over the country and in our hometown of Wilmington, to pray for the family and support them in any way they could. The outpouring of help in all forms was astonishing.
My wife, daughter, and granddaughter had been on their way to deliver a home cooked dinner to a cancer patient in our church. When they had escaped the wreckage, a firefighter grabbed the food, all of it remarkably intact. Someone who works on the WB network television show, One Tree Hill, took it from them and delivered it the rest of the way to the intended recipient's home, a couple of miles away. He enjoyed the chicken potpie, fried okra, and cheesecake, while thinking the family had been in a little fender bender. Apprised by phone calls of the true situation, he rushed to the hospital where he works, and sat with my wife during her severe pain and many tests. She told him how hard it was that this had all happened while I was in the mountains of Utah. He said, "Well, the way most men react to emergencies, we might as well all be in Utah." She replied, "Please don't make me laugh, it hurts too much."
By midnight, I had the full report, and talked to my wife, who said I should stay in Sundance to do my second talk on "True Success" for the wonderful people of Davita, who were so supportive to me during the ordeal, and then come home when I could. I was scheduled to return Friday night but was determined in the wee hours of Thursday to get back that same day, to be of comfort and assistance as soon as possible.
I was told that after my talk, I probably couldn't get from Sundance to the airport in Salt Lake for the flight I needed in order to get home the same day. I tried anyway and got there in time. Then I was told there were no seats on the plane. Holding a ticket to a later flight, I went to the gate anyway as the last passengers boarded. One guy in 33E didn't show. So I got to Atlanta. The time between flights was likely too short for me to be able to make it to the connection, and again, I didn't have a seat. But this last flight to Wilmington was delayed. So I made it to the gate. And one seat opened up. With determined persistence, and the generous help of two kind Delta gate agents, I made it home.
Then things got really interesting.
After running errands for the ladies, and as dinnertime approached, I had a very strong, inexplicable urge to go to a nice restaurant I haven't gotten take-out from in ten years. I called in an order and arrived early. While waiting for the food, I told some staff about the accident and that I was bringing dinner to injured family members. They all looked stunned and said a waiter there had witnessed the accident at the scene, the day before when it happened, across town. One lady said he had actually helped out.
At that second, young Brian Nave walked through the front door and was identified as the man. I told him that it was my family in the accident. He was surprised. I asked him to tell me the story, and he humbly recounted what had happened. It turned out that he was the superhero, flying to the overturned wreck, climbing up on it to force open the door, and cutting himself in the process of saving my wife. I got a chance to shake his hand, thank him, and offer him his first big tip of the evening.
Hours later, my daughter and granddaughter visited Brian and took him a picture the little one had drawn, portraying herself saying, "Thank you for being our hero. I'm alive!" He told my daughter that he's going to donate the money I gave him to the Leukemia Society, and in my name. I now call him Saint Brian.
As a philosopher, it's my job to study human nature. And it's not always a pretty picture. But on days when things go horribly wrong, we sometimes see ordinary people take extraordinary actions for no reason except that they're necessary. This is a simple and powerful reassurance of the basic goodness that can still be found in people. Airline agents, waiters, and regular people who see a need can sometimes do great things. I know only one of these recent heroes-on-the-scene by name. But I'm grateful to them all, as are my wife, daughter, and a small child who is now able to say, "I'm alive!"
So if you're ever in the coastal town of Wilmington, NC, go to lunch or dinner at the Port City Chop House and ask to be seated in the area served by a superhero, or Saint Brian. And please tell him he's appreciated.