THE HERO HUNTERS ALWAYS GET THEIR MAN
Their job is low-key Bond, with heart. They are a small, dedicated band of sleuths who quietly seek out and reward men and women who’ve risked (and sometimes lost) their lives to save others
I HELPED MAKE Harold Acornley a public hero because I saw what he did the night a transformer on a hydro pole blew up and trapped Roy Seabrooke amid the flames, arms outflung in his frenzy, like a man crucified and now burned on a sacrificial Cross of Lorraine.
Acornley and Seabrooke, linemen for Toronto Hydro, had been sent to the island in Toronto Harbor where I lived, to repair a fault in one of two transformers mounted on a pole by my front gate. Seabrooke climbed twenty-five feet up a ladder to investigate while Acornley stayed by the service truck, directing the spotlight. 1 watched briefly, then went indoors, and as I did so heard a “whoosh!”, then screams: “Don’t leave me . . . for Christ's sake, don’t leave me . . .” It was Seabrooke. The transformer had exploded, spewing blazing oil which set his clothes aflame and the pole burning.
I ran back to the truck and saw him, trapped by his own safety belt, writhing in the heart of fifteen-foot-high flames. And then I watched Acornley, after a split second of hesitation, climb the ladder, stand with his head and torso in the flames; reach around Seabrooke’s tortured body; fumble for perhaps a minute; free the belt, then help Seabrooke down the ladder.
Roy Seabrooke was badly burned and lay for weeks undergoing skin grafts, but he did recover completely and, now fifty-four, is back
at his old job. Harold Acornley never will recover. He, too, was badly burned, and because his head was directly level with and, at times, actually in the flames (Seabrooke’s was higher, above the heart of the flames) his eyesight was damaged. Permanently distorted vision, which doctors say may deteriorate, means he can no longer see to read or even watch television, and at forty-seven he is doing a job Toronto Hydro usually reserves for less skilled and older men.
Though I didn't know what his heroism was to cost Acornley, I awoke later that night, sweating, having dreamed that it was I and not Acornley who had been faced with the decision: “Shall I climb up into that inferno — or call the fire brigade?” My answer made me a coward. In a statement to police I later tried to measure Harold Acornley's guts by saying, “A man who helps others when he finds himself actually in unavoidable danger is brave. A man who deliberately puts himself in danger to help another is a hero.”
And thus, eight months later, I met the hero hunters.
They are men whose job is to seek out and reward with medals and (usually) money any American and Canadian men and women who, like Harold Acornley, risked their own lives (and sometimes lost them) in saving or trying to save others. There are six men for whom hero hunting is a full-time occupation — four who spend their lives wandering the continent for half the salary their qualifications might earn elsewhere, and two Pittsburgh head-office men who direct operations and sift the travelers’ reports. All work for the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, set up sixty-two years ago by Andrew Carnegie, that old commercial buccaneer who is said to have made one and a half billion dollars and then devoted as much energy to giving it away as he had to making it. He was fond of saying it was no sin to get rich, but it was a disgrace to die that way.
He did, anyway, but before doing so set up the Carnegie Foundation and the Carnegie public libraries — and the little-known hero fund as well. Twenty-one of his Pittsburgh friends actually formed the commission, to which he gave five million dollars in steel-company bonds (worth around thirteen million today) and the job of seeking out heroes in the U.S., Canada and “the colony of Newfoundland” to ensure they or their families do not suffer as a result of their bravery; heroism can maim or kill, and the heroes and their families sometimes pay a high price in deprivation.
In 1904 the cash awards of between five hundred and two thousand dollars and pensions of one thousand dollars a year, perhaps more, were enough to provide a degree of comfort. The cash rewards haven’t increased much, but they’re still welcome and sometimes the commission will pay off a hero’s debts to give him a fresh start, or foot the education bill for a hero’s orphan or for a youthful hero himself. And instead of thinking itself anachronistic in the age of the non-hero, the commission appears to believe — probably with justice — that it’s a worthwhile job to recognize and reward the rare
virtue all heroes display: selflessness.
continued on-page 28
Medal winners range from schoolboys to laborers, linked by acts of bravery
continued from page 25
Since it was founded the commission members have always heen men of substance in and around Pittsburgh. Currently, its members are lawyers, bank officials, company presidents, senior steel-company executives and one retired civil servant. In all, 4,993 medals (they’re gold, silver or bronze depending on how heroic the hero is judged to have been) have been awarded, along with more than ten million dollars in cash awards, pensions anti aid to dependents.
There were many Canadians among the early award winners: two among the first ten chosen heroes received medals for saving drowning people, one of whom was a teenage girl trying to commit suicide in the St. Lawrence. In the middle years of the commission’s history the number of Canadian awards dwindled: the fund had never become well established in Canada, and the commission’s policy of avoiding publicity (they seemed to believe the myth that all heroes are inevitably modest) meant that few Canadians were aware the fund existed, and hardly any cases were reported to Pittsburgh. Then some five years ago the commission began to seek out heroic Canadians with the result that in December they announced that the one hundred and seventy-two awards in 1965 included a record twenty-one in Canadian cases—nineteen to Canadians and two to visiting Americans who vainly tried to save a drowning man.
The most recent gold medal the commission awarded was an omnibus recognition of the heroes of the Springhill, Nova Scotia, mine disaster in 1958, when one hundred and seventy-four men were entombed underground by what the medal citation describes as “an underground convulsion.” This gold medal — like the bronze and silver, it bears a likeness of Carnegie on one side and the crests of the U. S., Canada and Newfoundland on the other — costs almost nine hundred dollars to make today, and only twenty-one of them have ever been awarded, which makes it somewhat rarer than the Victoria Cross, of which fourteen hundred have been won, or the U. S. Congressional Medal of Honor. In fact, the Springhill gold medal was the first awarded in thirtyyears.
This obvious reluctance to hand out gold medals enhances its value as an honor, but more precisely reflects the commission's dilemma not only in trying to decide whether a man or woman is a hero, but in seeking to measure the degree of heroism displayed.
The commission long since abandoned its quest to find out why any man is heroic; they have a hard enough task deciding whether he was or wasn't, and their regulations drawn up with old Andrew Carnegie’s approval provide little help. They do. however, say heroes must always be rescuers. More, they must have voluntarily and knowingly risked, or lost, their own lives to save, or try to save, “a fellow being.” Policemen, firemen,
and members of the armed forces in action arc never heroes by the commission’s definition, because it is considered that in saving anyone they’re only doing what's expected of them. Husbands, wives, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters are all disqualified for the same reason.
But the commission must decide for itself the extent of the danger faced by a rescuer. Last year schoolboy Raymond Castagner, of North Surrey, British Columbia, won a bronze medal for dashing upstairs in a blazing frame house to rescue a baby girl. He could have been overcome by smoke, or lost his way in the upstairs rooms and been unable to save himself. But he wouldn’t have got an award if, say, he’d just dashed a few feet inside the front door, or if the smoke hadn’t been so thick, or the blaze so fierce. The duration of the danger matters, too. Risking your life for a few seconds—as did Ronald Grant, of Whitefish, Ontario, when he ran to whisk a child from the path of a train—rated a bronze medal. But New Brunswick game warden Vernon Bagley was in mortal danger for three long hours the freezing, gale-whipped night in 1963 when he was twice lowered down a cliff face to rescue a man trapped on a precipitous ledge. That earned a silver medal.
The nature of the danger is also examined. Raymond Castagner and Ronald Grant both received bronze medals, and though the commission will never discuss their reasoning in individual cases it is apparent that Castagner risked possible death for several minutes by running into a burning house, while Grant faced almost certain death for a fleeting moment by leaping in front of a train. Then again, a man who knows the risk he’s taking is considered more heroic than one who doesn’t. A man who goes down a mine shaft to save someone and only then finds it is full of poisonous gas isn't considered as heroic as the man who, knowing the gas was there, went down anyway. And fifteen-year-old Lyle Olsen, of Estevan, Saskatchewan, might not have won a 1965 bronze medal for saving three drowning people in a water-filled coal pit if he had ever had lifesaving training; his heroism was at least partly measured by the fact that he was not equipped for water rescues.
But before the agony of trying to measure all these factors begins, one of the commission's four full-time field agents—they're called “special agents”—investigates all likely cases. The most recently recruited of them, a forty-one-year-old former television script writer named Sam LeDonne, was assigned to seek out the evidence that would show whether Harold Acornley really was heroic the night he climbed a blazing hydro pole by my house to rescue Roy Seabrooke.
LeDonne began by interviewing me, then went on to meet a half dozen or so of my island neighbors who had seen at least part of the rescue. He sought out firemen called to the fire. He measured the hydro pole and spent hours with hydro
For outstanding courage shown in saving others, these 18 Canadians were awarded Carnegie Bronze Medals in 1965
engineers to determine the danger represented by power lines. He found the breeze that night had been enough to blow the flames into Acornley’s face. He talked to Seabrooke who said, yes, Acornley had risked his life, and from the hospital found out, down to their underwear, exactly what both men were wearing at the time—just in case Acornley had been wearing protective clothing that minimized the risk. Finally he interviewed Harold Acornley, who said, yes, he supposed he had risked his life like everyone said, but that he didn’t think too much about it, what with friend Roy stuck up the pole and all.
LeDonne's report told the full measure of Acornley's heroism. Seabrooke, hysterical, had twice kicked him, once in the face and once in the stomach. To free the end of Seabrooke's safety belt that had become hooked on a crossarm, Acornley first reached into the flames to try to cut it with a knife. Having failed, he had to reach in again within an inch or so of a power line to pull Seabrooke toward him and locate and release the other end of the belt, snagged on the trapped man’s overalls. On the ground, Acornley remained selfless. While Seabrooke received first aid, Acornley radioed his office to have power to the burning transformer cut off. He even helped tend Seabrooke. And all the time he himself was suffering from secondand thirddegree burns. His vision was fading, apparently because his eyeballs were seared 'r v the flames. And somehow he had ruptured his diaphragm.
By the time all this information reached Pittsburgh, it was neatly typed on a compartmentalized form and LeDonne had reduced it to a sort of bureaucratese which describes prospective heroes with the abbreviation "RR,” the rescued as "QD" and the widows or orphaned children left by those who died being heroic as “BFCY”—beneficiary. In this fashion the commission attempts to reduce heroism—those acts of defiant courage wherein a man rises above himself and in a blazing moment ennobles all mankind with his selflessness—to an identifiable formula that in theory can be examined with the cold-blooded detachment of a zoologist studying the mating habits of the honey bee. Predictably, it doesn’t often work. David B. Oliver II, commission general manager and hero hunter-inchief, confesses to being awed often by the cases his men report. A tifty-one-year-old whose easy charm is fitting in one whose aristocratic family is rooted deep in the history of Pittsburgh and the steel business, Oliver says, “There are times when 1 am overcome with an awareness of just what I'm doing—sitting safe in my office, deciding whether a man who climbed down a collapsing coal mine or ran into a burning building or jumped into a whirlpool is a hero or not. And who am I to do thatT'
And so quite often he and Donald Sink, a lean and energetic former newspaperman who is now chief special agent, sit down to decide on a recommendation to the commission and ask themselves the same question I asked after I watched Harold Acornley climb up into a pyre suspended on a hydro pole: “Could / have
done that?” Then the commission’s twenty-one members repeat the process. One of them, attorney Torrance Baker, says, “Sometimes a case is clear-cut. In others, you say, 'Why, 1 would have done that.' And so you turn the award down.”
There are also occasions on which the commission improves on the award recommended by Oliver and Sink. In November it considered the Acornley case and decided that, instead of the recommended bronze
medal, he should receive a silver medal, plus an award of seven hundred and fifty dollars and four hundred dollars to pay medical bills.
In Acornley's case, it is likely the Toronto Hydro will stage a formal presentation ceremony some time this month, just as ceremonies marked the award to him of the British Empire Medal for gallantry and the St. John Lifesaving bronze medal. But in most cases the Carnegie medals turn up along with the doctor’s bill and soap
circulars in the mail one morning: it’s a slow-to-change belief of the Carnegie commission that heroes are modest and are embarrassed by a fuss made in recognition of their courage. This is not always true. Many men who acted courageously and were later lionized enjoy the added respect accorded them by community and friends.
Acornley’s silver medal is one of only five awarded by the Carnegie commission in 1965, and the fourth silver medal earned by a Canadian
in as many years. One was to Vernon Baglcy, who rescued a man • trapped on a cliff face in 1963; another went to Cicorgc Preissler. who was instrumental in the rescue of a fellow miner after a mine cave-in at Britannia Beach. BC (a doctor and a third miner received bronze medals in this incident), and the third was awarded Mrs. Elsie McEvoy, a Hinton, Alberta, housewife who rescued a neighbor's six-year-old son from a cougar in 1962. While the cougar was savaging the child, Mrs. McEvoy belabored il with a branch, then leaped on its hack and struck it repeatedly until ils skull was fractured.
This was one of just two cougar cases in the commission’s history: the other occurred last year, when James Baker, a rancher near Ashcroft, BC, rescued his tcenaged hired hand. The big cat had knocked the boy down and was clawing his arm and gnawing at his head when Baker jumped on its hack and plunged a three-inch penknife blade into the animal’s neck. The cougar ran off. Later, it was shot by one of Baker’s neighbors.
Though it was a bigger animal than the one Mrs. McEvoy attacked, Baker received only a bronze medal: the commission seemingly considered Mrs. McEvoy more heroic because she’s a woman and because she’s only five feet four inches tall, and the cougar she killed measured more than that from tail to nose.
But perhaps the most clear-cut cases of demonstrable heroism are those in which fate seems to have been determined to devise diabolical hazards for those who set out to save others. One of the first gold medalists was a man who, in 1910 in Houston, Texas, climbed a metal fire ladder to rescue a fireman who collapsed and hung near the top, in danger of being broiled alive by the fire he had been fighting. If the fire were not hazard enough, the ladder had struck an electric cable and was highly charged with electricity. Another gold medalist earned his award by climbing down a rope into the heart of an extinct volcano in New Mexico to rescue a man buried in a pile of bat dung infested with poisonous snakes. In each of these cases both rescued and rescuer survived, hut a tug skipper and his oneman crew who braved heaving seas in a bid to rescue the crew of a ship burning off the New England coast did not: he made the try even though he knew the ship carried explosives, and after the explosion no member of the crew of the ship or of the tug could be found. In 1932 Mathias Wuhr, a miner of Minto. New Brunswick, made four trips slung on the end of a rope to the bottom of a forty-five-foot-deep disused mine shaft that seemed likely to cave in at any moment. Two boys had fallen down there. Four would-be rescuers followed and were overcome by poisonous gas. Even knowing this, Wuhr went down four times. On each of the journeys he, too, was overcome but was hauled to the sLirface and when revived went down again. He put ropes around the trapped — the two hoys and the unconscious men — and when they were hauled out only two were alive.
Cases like these excite even the
seasoned field agents, whose investigations more usually involve neardrownings or rescues from burning buildings. These four agents are an unusual crew, and almost need to be. They travel about twenty-five thousand miles apiece each year, investigating cases reported by such organizations as the Boy Scouts and by Congressmen, police chiefs, fire marshals, industrial safety officers, newspapermen and a few members of the public who are aware of the commission's existence. All six hero hunters meet each year, at Christmas, to discuss mutual problems, but mostly they’re on the road, and alone.
To fill in the long and often lonely hours in strange towns senior agent Herbert Eyman, a veteran of almost thirty years hero hunting, collects rocks and makes cuff links, rings, tie pins and other jewelry from semiprecious stones. LeDonne’s hobby is theatregoing. Irwin Urling, in his late fifties and a man of substantial girth and fluent erudition, writes three personal letters a day. Ronald Swartzlander, at thirty the youngest hero hunter, has a passion for travel undiminished by three years of it.
Their permitted expenses are modest (Irwin Urling’s gourmet tastes could never be satisfied by the sixdollars-a-day meal allowance), and though all have qualifications — a degree, or journalistic, advertising or television experience — which would rate at least $8,000 a year elsewhere, they prefer to hunt heroes for between $4,250 and $6,250.
Sometimes a non-hero
Officially, no field agent is supposed to pass judgment on the merits of any case. However, if they use a “shortreport form” with room for only fifteen hundred words, it implies they consider the rescue in question less than heroic. One such involved a youth who, according to newspaper reports, saved two friends from a burning store in St. Louis. The commission investigated and found all three youths were arsonists who had become trapped by their own fire. They were convicted and jailed.
Most of the investigated cases, however, do involve displays of commendable courage, though a good third of them don’t rate with the commission as acts of heroism. Last summer Irwin Urling spent a week traveling by train and bush plane between Toronto and Fort George on the Quebec shore of James Bay to investigate a Boy Scouts’ association report that a young Indian boy deserved an award for rescuing friends from a blazing shack. The journey there took three days, but it took three hours to prove the hoy had actually been inside the shack when the fire started, and though he displayed courage in helping others escape, he had not actually gone into danger to save others and was thus not a hero by the commission’s definition.
Urling was one of three agents who visited Canada in the summer and fall of 1965 to investigate the twentyseven cases that, on the face of it, involved heroism. Some involved rescues that took place in 1964 — Acornley’s rescue of Seahrooke was in October that year—hut the com-
mission considers any case not more than three years old. Of the twentyone Canadian awards in 1965, eight involved drownings or near drownings and five involved rescues from burning buildings. The heroes were schoolboys and girls, housewives, two Americans on holiday, railway workers, switchboard operators, engineers: indeed, they represented a catholic cross-section of Canadian life. One, Ronald Lapensée, of Cornwall, Ontario, was serving a jail term for fraud when the commission announced he had won a bronze medal for helping to save three men who had fallen through the ice on the St. Lawrence last winter. The commission had known this, and made the award anyway. Commission manager Oliver believes it may have helped him go straight since. Three awards recognized heroism while saving others from death beneath the wheels of trains: Carol Strudwick, a Toronto fourteen-year-old, rolled a friend clear of a train bearing down on them as they played on a railway trestle bridge. In doing so, she had no time to save herself. A bronze medal was awarded posthumously.
Probably the most dramatic rescue to earn a 1965 Carnegie award was performed by locomotive fireman Glen Nagle, of Toronto, who spotted two hoys, one five and the other six, playing on a trestle bridge when his train was only five hundred yards away and could not he stopped in time. While the engine shuddered and jerked under full brakinp.v Nagle climbed out of the cab,-silched his way along the side of the engine, then swung down onto a narrow hoard slung low over the rails, roughly where the cowcatcher used to be on steam locomotives. The boys stood transfixed by the sight of the engine, now barely thirty-five feet away and still moving. Nagle yelled, “Lie down at the side of the track!” The older boy did so. The five-year-old stood petrified. “Put out your hand!” Nagle screamed. At the last second the five-year-old did so. Nagle, crouching on the footboard and leaning out so far he was in danger of himself falling under the wheels of his own train, grabbed the boy’s extended hand, swung him off his feet and held him until the train finally stopped, one hundred and twenty feet farther on. The older hoy was unhurt.
In the commission’s Pittsburgh office suite, where marble walls frame old and stately furniture and where the atmosphere is almost hallowed, like that of a public library, there are thousands of similarly stirring tales told in the dull and emotionless prose affected by generations of hero hunters. They’re stored, aged yellow now, in filing cabinets. You could read them all and find that heroes can he seven or seventy, paupered or rich, healthy or crippled, good men, wise men, weak men or criminals.
Yet there is nothing, and no one, to tell you what it is in a man that makes him leap forward and act while others stand pat and yell, “Look out!” There is nothing, and there is no one, to explain why Harold Acornley climbed up that hydro pole by my front gate that cold October night instead of running to call the fire department. ★