Accidental heroes

When tragedies happen, it’s the heroes we cling to. But what makes a hero? Karen Kissane reports.

Everybody loves a hero – except, for a time, the hero himself. Two months ago, after Cranbourne resident John Leusenkamp helped rescue children from a burning car, he started getting calls.
“You have people ringing up and straight away going, `Hero hero hero!’ on the phone, and I’m thinking, `Who are you? F. . . off!’
“A bit later on, it sounds all right; people appreciate what you’ve done. But in the beginning you don’t even want to know about that side of it because you’re pretty depressed straight after it, with what you’ve seen and what you’ve heard. I was face to face with what went on in that car; what you see on Hollywood movies with cars exploding and people burning, that’s nothing.”

He is still struggling with flashbacks of the children’s suffering – one of the boys, nine-year-old Chad Clay, later died from his burns – and with trying to make sense of such random destruction. “Why does it have to happen to children? They haven’t even had a life yet.”

Leusenkamp, a carpet tiler, is a hero in the classic Australian mode: an ordinary bloke suddenly confronted with extraordinary circumstances who hurls himself into protecting others. The Bali blast saw many of them, including some who might never be named because they died as strangers trying to rescue other strangers. This week’s shooting at Monash University, in which lecturers and a student tackled a heavily armed gunman, added three more to the list of local heroes.

Why do some people leap into heroic action while others freeze or flee? What is it like for them afterwards? Does becoming a hero, like winning the lottery, have as much capacity to ruin a life as it does to enrich it? And why does the rest of the world, as personified by Leusenkamp’s unwanted callers, have such a need to fasten on to them?

Dr Bob Montgomery, a Queensland clinical psychologist who counsels trauma victims and who has co-authored a book on coping with crisis, says many heroes have something in common: training. In an emergency, most people have the normal human response of emotional freezing; their thinking narrows and they become focused only on escape.

“They will do things to survive that they are ashamed of later,” he says. “A man caught in a football crush in Britain panicked. He clambered on top of everyone else and walked over their heads. Later, he felt immensely guilty . . . but he escaped while others were killed.”

The few who do heroic, constructive things “often are people who have had special training: off-duty firemen or policemen, ambulance officers”, he says.

What about the human bucket brigade in Bali, the group of young men who lined up to help others clamber over a fence to escape the Sari Club fire? One would have taken the lead and the others would have followed, he suggests.

“You only need a small number of people to set the pace, and that will come from someone with training or from someone who’s just a remarkably robust individual.”

It’s not hard to find examples to prove his rule. Lee Gordon-Brown, the lecturer who tackled the Monash gunman despite having been shot himself, was a former airforce engineer, and the student who went to his aid, Alistair Boast, was a kung fu expert.

Senior Constable Stuart White recently received a bravery award for hauling a would-be suicide out of the path of an on-coming train with only seconds to spare. He says he had been trained in how to tackle people and had experience of racing down train tracks. “I knew the stones were more solidly packed in the middle and loose on the side, and that if you’re on the loose stuff you’ll roll an ankle and go off.”

But there are also many heroes such as Leusenkamp who have had no preparation for their moment of truth. Katie Steadman was a 17-year-old Queensland high school student when she helped save her two nephews from a fire and raced back into the burning house to try to rescue her two-year-old niece, Mikayla. She was beaten back by the heat and later nearly died from her injuries, which included full-thickness burns to 70 per cent of her body and the loss of her lower left leg.

She is now a chirpy 19-year-old, with a spare waterproof prosthetic leg so she can water-ski. Despite her scarring, Steadman has no regrets about her rescue attempt, other than the big one: that Mikayla still died.

She is as modest as all the others interviewed for this story. Her mantra, like theirs, is “I don’t see myself as a hero. I feel I did something that any person would do.” But she acknowledges she has “talked to people who say that they would never have been able to put their life on the line like that”.

Altruism is a mystery to Darwinians, says Dr Karen Jones, lecturer in philosophy at Melbourne University. “There’s a puzzle about how altruism evolved because it looks like it might not enhance your own fitness to do altruistic acts.”

She says research suggests that altruism is a complex interaction between the person and the situation. Social psychologists once set up an experiment in which seminarians (trainees for the priesthood) were invited to Princeton University to lecture on the tale of the Good Samaritan. The need for good deeds should have been at the forefront of their minds.

On the way, they passed a staged situation in which a distressed person looked to be in need of help. But whether they stopped of help. But whether they stopped depended simply on whether or not they had been told they were running late for their lecture.

Australia is ambivalent about its heroes. People feel moved and proud to hear of them. Heroes are also comforting social tranquillisers; reassurance of good in the midst of evil and of the possibility of triumph, or at least integrity, in the face of catastrophe.

But according to Graeme Davison, professor of Australian history at Monash University, Australia also has a strongly democratic, anti-heroic streak. “Forty years ago, we used to rejoice in the fact that we had few heroes and the ones we did have were people like Ned Kelly or `types’, such as the Anzac . . . It’s a big sin in Australia to take yourself too seriously or place yourself on a pedestal.”

Heroes will wryly agree. Ask them how their friends and colleagues responded and it is always a tale of chiacking. When Inspector Peter Dinan and another officer rescued 11 people from a fire in 1980, their colleagues said: “The lengths some people will go to get noticed.” Stuart White was told: “There’s a thin line between bravery and stupidity.”
Perhaps it is that cutting down to size that leads to many heroes downplaying their achievement and the fulfilment it must bring them. But 20 years after his rescue effort, Dinan still cherishes the memory. “It’s an absolute privilege to have saved someone. There’s definitely three people still alive simply because we stopped to investigate (smoke). I’ll always remember it. I could imagine a brain surgeon would feel the same thing taking a tumour out of someone’s head. It’s terrific.”

Below the public teasing runs an undercurrent of admiration and, in the face of a tragedy as large as the Bali bombings, it becomes open and generous. Montgomery says: “Society wants heroes partly because we want someone we can admire and identify with, who sets a good example and gives us hope that if anything really dreadful happened there might be someone to help me, or I might be able to help someone myself”.

Heroes are particularly important as a reassurance of goodness when the emergency has involved deliberate harm, says Dr Beverley Raphael. She is the director of the NSW Centre for Mental Health and, as a pyschiatrist, has been called in to help after many disasters, including the Granville train wreck, Cyclone Tracey, the Ash Wednesday bushfires and the Newcastle earthquake. “Bali was different to a natural disaster; all of us are having trouble coming to terms with the horror of people’s malevolence, and that’s a whole stressor in itself,” she says.

There are cultures in which the great heroes of the nation are warriors, honoured for their triumphs on the battlefield. Australia is not one of them. After World War I, Albert Jacka received a Victoria Cross for the way he had taken on and killed the enemy in combat. Today few people know of him. Our household names are not fighters but saviours: Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli, army surgeon Weary Dunlop on the Burma Railway.

Davison says the adulation of such men is sometimes an attempt to redress some kind of social imbalance. With the death of Weary Dunlop in 1993, Davison says many older people expressed concern that he was the last great Australian hero, and that young people would feel the lack. “They were looking towards heroes as providing of kind of moral centre for a society which seemed to be badly in need of it.”

He says this decade, heroes might be providing balance for the economic rationalist emphasis on individualism and personal success: “The hero is, above all, someone who does things for others rather than for himself. (The public’s response) might be partly born out of a sense of a need for community solidarity.”
The hero of myth, according to writer Joseph Campbell, was someone who was removed from ordinary life, had fabulous adventures and returned to ordinary life transformed, aware of the eternal truths and able to offer boons to others. Research suggests that the same can be true of real-life heroes, but that their odyssey might need to include a stop at a therapist’s.

Heroes are probably just as likely as anyone else to suffer post-traumatic stress, Raphael says. “People who have been able to be active often feel stronger afterwards, but they’re also often torn by feelings of `Why did I survive when others didn’t?’ ”
And, just like any victim of horror, they can develop post-trauma symptoms: reliving the event through nightmares and flashbacks; emotional numbing; and hyper-arousal, which leads to irritability, poor concentration and sleep problems.

Leusenkamp has found that becoming a hero “messes with your head, especially because there’s children involved. You have trouble sleeping. I still go into my own little world with thoughts and that. It’s hard to get motivated, concentrate on anything. I’ve shied off my mates. I just can’t seem to get back into my routine.”

And even heroes sometimes reproach themselves for not having done enough. Raphael says that, in a crisis, a person’s perception of time is distorted and reality unfolds in slow motion, leaving the person wondering if there had been time to do more.Katie Steadman agrees: “Although I was in the house for only about five seconds, my mind slowed down that whole process like I was there for 10 minutes.”

What was left undone might haunt some of the Bali victims, who told of walking past injured people begging for help because they were searching for their mates or loved ones. “They dissociated from those victims while they looked for people they felt a closer bond for. In a way, that’s what health professionals do every day when they deal with suffering,” Montgomery says.

As for the eternal truths, heroes, like other people who have faced sudden death and disaster, often emerge determined to spend more time with their family. Raphael’s research has found that many examine whether they are happy with their work, and some search for ways to make the world a better place.

Sometimes their hero status can be a heavy burden: “They have got to live up to this image, and their ordinary feelings of weakness and grief and horror and fear are hard for them to deal with. It’s stamped on them forever; it’s expected that they will keep on doing it when at other times they might actually be feeling fearful or depressed.”

It has helped Leusenkamp that he has made friends with the family he helped to save: “I get to see the kids a bit. I never knew them before that (car fire), so I only had one vision of what they were like, and seeing them sort of takes that memory away.”

Steadman has had to give up her dream of joining the police force – she is now a hero and a dental assistant – and the experience has changed her life in other ways, too. “I live for the day; I don’t look too far ahead.” She has also taken up again with her old boyfriend, who supported her strongly during her months of recovery. “Before, like any young teenage girl, I used to think, `I can get this guy, that guy’. Now I look inside people and not at personal appearances,” she says. She did have nightmares, but they stopped when she went home after three months in hospital. At home, she says, she doesn’t have to be a hero.

Karen Kissane is an Age senior writer.

Brave words

It feels good that I was responsible from stopping this guy from doing what he intended to do.

– Sandro de Maria (above), on helping to disarm convicted killer Peter Knight, who shot dead a security guard at an East Melbourne abortion clinic.

I know we’re all going to die.

Three of us are going to do something about it. Love you, honey.

– Thomas Burnett (above), on the phone to his wife, Deena, before he and others forced flight 93 to crash in rural Pennsylvania rather than the White House on September 11, 2001.

First published in The Age.