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.