When there’s a terrorist attack, there are courageous emergency workers. Where there’s a mass shooting, there are selfless bystanders who shield strangers and tend to the wounded. When there’s a natural disaster, there’s someone checking in on a neighbor.
The media often declare them “heroes,” though in many cases they refuse the label. They insist that they were just doing their jobs, or doing what anyone would do in their situation.
Whatever you call them, they provided some of the year’s most uplifting stories. Violence and destruction have a way of draining hope, but acts of altruism and selflessness under duress offered a sliver of light when people most needed it.
They provided moments of uplift, often little noticed, in a year when stories of collective heroism were in the headlines: The women who came forward about sexual harassment, abuse and assault by powerful men. The unauthorized immigrant students who excelled in the face of a harsh political environment in the United States. The besieged human rights lawyers defying an increasingly authoritarian Chinese government. The Native American teenagers who helped halt an energy pipeline that would have devastated their homeland in the Dakotas.
Here are some of the less prominent acts of courage by ordinary individuals who lurked behind the news — women and men who risked their lives, ran toward danger, or otherwise inspired us in 2017.
Muslims raised money to help Jewish institutions that were attacked.
After Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia and near St. Louis were vandalized, and bomb threats were made at community centers and day schools, thousands of Muslims and others donated more than $136,000 for repairs.
A man threw himself at a gunman who had killed an Indian immigrant.
The man, Ian Grillot, 24, was shot while intervening in a hate crime in Olathe, Kansas. India House Houston, a nonprofit organization, later raised money for a reward, which Grillot used to buy a home.
A homeless man aided children wounded in a terrorist attack in England.
“Just because I am homeless doesn’t mean I haven’t got a heart, or I’m not human still,” the man, Stephen Jones, 35, told ITV News. The attack in Manchester, Britain’s deadliest terrorist attack in more than a decade, killed 22 people and injured dozens of others.
Teenage girls in Nigeria, kidnapped by Boko Haram and strapped to suicide vests, managed to escape and tell their stories.
“I didn’t want a situation where I’m the reason anyone dies,” one of them told us. The deployment of children has become so common that citizens are warned to be on the lookout for girl bombers.
An illustrator from Colombia jumped onto subway tracks in Manhattan to help a homeless man who had fallen.
“If nobody does anything, he’s going to die,” David Capuzzo, 26, recalled thinking. A New York Times reporter witnessed the rescue at the Second Avenue station on New York’s Lower East Side.
Female inmates in California signed up to fight wildfires, at times risking their lives.
Around 250 women take part in the program. They are paid less than $2 an hour for hazardous and backbreaking work.
A French philosopher who praised risk-taking died while saving drowning children.
“When there really is a danger that must be faced in order to survive,” Anne Dufourmantelle said in a 2015 interview, “there is a strong incentive for action, dedication and surpassing oneself.”
When the time came, she acted, plunging into the Mediterranean to save two children from drowning. She died, but they lived.
Three men intervened to stop a xenophobic attack; two of them died.
Micah David-Cole Fletcher, a student and poet, was stabbed while intervening in a deadly xenophobic attack in Portland, Oregon. He survived, but two other men who intervened — Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, a recent college graduate, and Rick Best, an Army veteran — died.
A woman who overcame a tough childhood adopted and raised three foster children on her own.
“To be a parent is to step into a great unknown, a magical universe where we choose to love over and over,” the mother, Rene Denfield, who grew up amid poverty, neglect and abuse, wrote in a Modern Love essay. “It is an act of courage no matter what.”
A ballet dancer jumped onto subway tracks to lift a man to safety.
“People were screaming to get help,” the dancer, Gray Davis, said afterward. “But nobody jumped down. So I jumped down.”
Philippine Muslims sheltered Christians in basements to protect them from militants.
In the besieged southern city of Marawi, Islamist militants went house to house searching for non-Muslims to kill. Brave residents sheltered Christian neighbors and colleagues, giving them canned goods and rice to subsist on.
Doctors and nurses calmly did their jobs after a gunman stormed the hospital where they work.
The gunman entered Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center in New York, killing a doctor and shooting six other people. Despite their anguish, medical staff worked around the clock to treat the injured.
Moments of hope and inspiration rose above the chaos of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Emergency workers, journalists and neighbors waded through floodwaters to reach people in danger during Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
Less than two weeks after Harvey, Florida residents staged their own rescues during Hurricane Irma and offered much-needed moments of humanity.
A teacher subdued a gunman at her high school in Illinois.
“Lives were saved by the quick response of a teacher here, and I think that’s what needs to be noted,” Jeff Branson, chief of the Mattoon Police Department, said in a news conference, hailing the efforts of the teacher, Angela McQueen.
An usher confronted a gunman who opened fire at a church in Tennessee.
Robert Engle, 22, subdued a gunman who opened fire at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, near Nashville. Chief Steve Anderson of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said Engle’s actions helped end the shooting.
The Las Vegas shooting, for all its horror, revealed humanity too.
“We all became one that night,” said Dean McAuley, an off-duty firefighter from Seattle who helped victims. “I got to see one person at their worst, but I got to see and witness humanity at its best.”
Many concertgoers and bystanders went into rescue mode, combing the grounds for survivors and helping the injured get to safety. Strangers used belts as makeshift tourniquets to stanch bleeding, and others sped the wounded to hospitals in the back seats of cars and the beds of pickup trucks.
A police officer ended New York City’s worst terror attack since 9/11.
The officer, Ryan Nash, shot and injured the terrorist, who had used a rented truck to kill eight people and injure 12 others in Lower Manhattan.
A policeman’s bear hug stopped a suicide bomber from killing even more people.
Sayed Basam Pacha, an Afghan police lieutenant, died after putting a suicide bomber in a tight hold, limiting the toll from the blast.
Haitians buried the unclaimed bodies of the poor.
Nearly eight years after the earthquake, some Haitians remain blisteringly poor and cannot bury their loved ones. The St. Luke Foundation for Haiti, a charity, buries the bodies of the island nation’s unclaimed dead.
And two reader favorites:
Mali, a Belgian Malinois badly injured by shrapnel, was awarded the Dickin Medal, Britain’s highest award for animal bravery, for helping to sniff out Taliban militants and their booby traps. And Storm, a golden retriever, pulled a drowning deer to safety.
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