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In A Crisis, Did You Act Or Did You Freeze?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Last week, on the first day of classes at a Baltimore high school, panic broke out when a student opened fire in the cafeteria. One student was shot in the back and remains in critical condition, but it might have been much worse if not for guidance counselor Jesse Wasmer, who wrestled the shooter to the ground. He's being called a hero.

In a piece for The Wall Street Journal, Sue Shellenbarger examines the traits and circumstances that makes some people more likely to jump into harm's way and intervene and why others freeze and stand by. We want to hear from the latter, those of you who saw someone in a life-threatening situation and didn't act. What went through your mind?

800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Sue Shellenbarger writes The Wall Street Journal's Work & Family column and joins us now from member station KLCC in Eugene. Nice to have you with us back on the program.

SUE SHELLENBARGER: It's great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And you started your piece with the story of an unlikely hero named Laurie Ann Eldridge.

SHELLENBARGER: Interesting, you know, the research shows if you're tall, strong, heavy, have lifesaving and rescue skills, it's common sense you're more likely to jump in an emergency. This young woman was not only small and think but partly disabled by a back injury. And she was gardening one night, saw an elderly woman stuck on the train tracks in her car and obviously disoriented, dropped everything, raced barefoot across the river and the train tracks and wrestled this much heavier woman from her car, covered her with her body while the train went by and demolished her car.

Laurie Ann said all she could think about was the feelings that woman must be having. She knew she needed help. Empathy, in that case, propelled her right through her natural obstacles of being small and weak and disabled.

CONAN: And one of the traits that characterizes those who are more likely to act: empathy.

SHELLENBARGER: It is. It's interesting. Hopefulness and optimism is another one, a tendency to see good and bad things. Some very good research on Canadian heroes at the University of British Columbia in Winnipeg found that people who were able to block out the negatives and see the good in a bad situation are also more likely to step up and try to rescue another human being.

CONAN: And to suggest that people who don't act in a crisis is not to suggest that they're not good people or caring people.

SHELLENBARGER: Absolutely. Take comfort that context really matters. I mean, if you don't perceive it as an emergency, perhaps you're in a large group of people, you're less likely to intervene then. Even if you're in a bad mood, you're feeling bad that day, that all affects your tendency to step up and, of course, being tall, strong, heavier than others and have the skills needed - if you don't know anything about electrical wiring, you're probably not going to try to help someone trapped in a high-power line, for example. All of these things affect why good people may not step up.

CONAN: And there have been any number of studies. You mentioned if there's a bunch of people present. Any number of studies suggests that if there are - is a crowd of people around, individuals are less likely to intervene.

SHELLENBARGER: There's something about the physics of that, yes. You feel more removed from it. You feel less of the sense of moral and social responsibility, perhaps part of the crowd. And, of course, the most famous study incident of all was the Kitty Genovese murder way back in the '60,s when many researchers tried to study why people did not intervene at that poor young woman's murder.

CONAN: That was back in the Kew Gardens in New York, a very famous case.

SHELLENBARGER: Yes, that's right.

CONAN: "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," you may remember that song. The traits, though, as you suggest, some of it's - well, no doubt, if you're trained, you know, trained in the military, trained, you know, firefighter, for that sort of thing, then you're more likely to be that kind of person.

SHELLENBARGER: Well, it's true. You feel capable. And those people - it's probably self-selecting to some extent. They tend to feel a strong confidence in their own coping ability. They step up and get the training. They have a sense of themselves as being aggressive in such a situation. One of the heroes I interviewed was a Navy nurse who intervened to take a live grenade out of a Marine's leg. He didn't have to do that. It was for the bomb squad to do. But he knew he was needed, felt he could handle it and just stepped up and took the guy's hand and said, I'm not leaving you until you're taken care of. So strong coping skills and a sense of responsibility really play a big role.

CONAN: And strong sense of responsibility but also a sense that I can do this. You talked about Steven St. Bernard, who came home last - I guess just this summer, in Brooklyn, apartment building. And the neighbors had gathered outside. He looked up and saw a kid playing on one of the air conditioning - air conditioners sticking out of the window.

SHELLENBARGER: This was a heartbreaking story. Steven St. Bernard, 53-year-old bus driver for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, much beloved in the neighborhood, planted a community garden for the kids and was coming home when the kids came running - Steve, Steve, there's an emergency. Several adults had already gathered beneath the window where this young girl who had autism was, you know, confused and didn't think she was in danger.

Steven St. Bernard exhibited one of the most interesting characteristics, the ability to drop block out fear of material loss or harm to yourself. He said, all I could think about was I hope I can get there in time. I hope I can catch her. He didn't think about the fact that she would hit him with an estimated 600 pounds of force, practically ripping his arm off. He said he didn't think about that at all.

And he caught her as she plummeted to the ground, and expert say no doubt, it saved her from serious injury or death. Steven St. Bernard is suffering now from severe, you know, pain and trauma to that arm. Had to have surgery. He's still only talking about the little girl. He says there wasn't a scratch on that baby. So he's a great example of one of these attributes of hopefulness, optimism and blocking out the negatives in life.

CONAN: Even though if he thought about it for a second, maybe if he'd studied physics, he would have said, yeah, I'm not so sure.

SHELLENBARGER: As would the Laurie Ann Eldridge's doctors have said, Laurie Ann, your back has been bad for 10 years. Are you sure you want to run over and wrestle that woman out of her car? It really defies common sense in some cases, heroism does.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from those of you in the audience who have seen such incidents and decided for whatever reason not to act. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Steven. Steven with us from Tulsa.

STEVEN: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

STEVEN: Actually - it happened yesterday. I was just - Labor Day, looking outside my front door, let the dogs out and I saw, you know, a lady walking up the street, a little girl, 15 or so probably was her age. And her sister - probably her sister, could have been her mother - was trying to get her in the car. They're having a domestic dispute. And I could see them kind of getting little agitated and she - her sister, she kind of grabs her and tries to throw her in the car, you know, pretty hardcore.

And then I was like, man, I don't know what to do. And I said I don't really know what to do at this point. Should I call the police or something? And then I sat there and watched. And 30 seconds later after watching, you know, and hearing them yelling stuff, this big buff guy comes around the corner and he is high-tailing it, arms up in the air, swinging. He grabs this girl. Just - I mean, headlocks her around and, I mean, just dragging her through the grass and then throws her in the car and pushed her in the car still.

And my thing was I felt like I had something to do but because it wasn't life-threatening necessarily or some type of potential - I didn't see where the potential was or what I could do by just - by doing anything. So I know I could have called the police who were down the block, a couple of - down the block a little bit. But, you know, it just happened that fast that, you know, he threw her in the car. At that point there was nothing I really could do, so it just kind of felt kind of helpless but wanting to do something but just didn't.

CONAN: Did you write down the license number?

STEVEN: I couldn't get the license plate. I was actually trying to get down to that angle. And what was really funny was the lady actually had - somebody else was watching and she yelled at her and said, you got a problem with me? And she was like, well, I - so I was like, I guess she doesn't really care what's going on. But no license or anything like that. And just - the guy came out of nowhere and I was like, what's he doing there? And he just - I mean, headlock around - and the girl had to have been in high school because she wasn't driving or anything.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. I can - well, this is obviously going to stay with you, even though it happened yesterday.

STEVEN: Yes. Absolutely. I've been thinking about it for a while.

CONAN: Thanks very much and appreciate the phone call.

STEVEN: I appreciate it. Thank you.

CONAN: And, Sue Shellenbarger, some people are better prepared to deal with surprise than others.

SHELLENBARGER: Well, it's true and it's interesting - Steven had the characteristics of a hero. He felt concern. He had a sense of responsibility. But increasingly, I think in modern society, one thing I heard from readers was that it's not always clear what is the right thing to do. Sometimes you're fearful of entanglements. Somebody will come back and sue you for harming them or intervening inappropriately, so it isn't clear. And some people theorize that heroism is declining in our society for that reason. So many opportunities are not clear-cut paths. You don't quite know how to respond.

CONAN: Let's go next to Amelia. And Amelia with us from Santa Rosa.



AMELIA: Well, I am a lifeguard. I've been a lifeguard for about seven years. I'm trained in first aid and CPR. And my boyfriend and I were in the car. We were leaving our neighborhood, and I saw that this gentleman I had been familiar with - he was once in the neighborhood - and he was on the ground unconscious, unconscious. And he had - he was obviously, you know, not breathing well and I could tell from the car, but I was about to get out. My boyfriend said no, and we kept driving.

CONAN: No is all he said?

AMELIA: Yeah. Well, he said, he said, there's nothing you can do. There were two people standing out over him already. They weren't doing anything. And he said we're going, and we just kept driving.

CONAN: Did you ask him why?

AMELIA: I did, and he said because there were two people already out there. They had their cellphones out. They were already calling 911. We ended up driving around the corner to a gas station, and the ambulance was on its way down from the freeway already. So they were on their way.

CONAN: So...

AMELIA: And a couple of weeks later, I noticed that he was walking around again and so - and I can tell he was OK. So...

CONAN: So it all worked out OK, but nevertheless you were trained to help in just that situation and circumstances coincided that you didn't.

AMELIA: That's right. I didn't have any equipment with me. I didn't have a rescue mask. I didn't have any gloves or anything like, so protecting myself against whatever he had, you know, wasn't really available to me at that point.

CONAN: But eventually deciding it wasn't your job to do that.

AMELIA: I definitely wanted to help, but the situation just wasn't...

CONAN: It just didn't work out that way.

AMELIA: It doesn't work out.

CONAN: Yeah. All right. Thanks very much for sharing the story. Appreciate it. It's not easy to say that.

AMELIA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Sue Shellenbarger, that's, again, somebody with all the characteristics but somehow didn't.

SHELLENBARGER: And probably her boyfriend was feeling protective toward her. I mean, in these situations with relationships where, you know, the boyfriend threw himself over his girlfriend in that theater in the shooting in Colorado, you know, sometimes the relationship itself has a dynamic of its own that affects whether you step up or not.

CONAN: We're talking with Sue Shellenbarger, the creator and writer of The Wall Street Journal's Work and Family column. Her piece "Are You a Hero or a Bystander" ran in the Journal last month. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get Ruby on the line, with us from Mill Valley, California.

RUBY: Oh, hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. I did help somebody a couple of weeks ago, and it was me against a young woman and a man who was going to beat her up. But the time - and I felt good about that - but the time I didn't help somebody was in the '70s when I drove from Connecticut to California on my own to live in California. Horrible, horrible snowstorm in Colorado, driving north on whatever highway that was. And couldn't see, just terrible snow. And there would be trailer tractors overturned in the median. And I couldn't brake. I couldn't stop because I was scared. And these guys came sailing past me in like a Fiat - four big, burly guys.

I mean, they - I just couldn't believe they were going so fast. And I thought, what - what's wrong with my tires? Why am I having such a hard time? Because anytime you slowed down, you swerved like crazy. And lo and behold, a few minutes later, they're turned upside down with their wheels spinning in the median. And I'm like, what - what am I going to do? This was before cellphones. This was before anything. This was the '70s. And I just - I started to cry. I can't stop and - because I know I will be spinning out and I'm a girl. And there, you know - well, what, about five, 10 minutes later, these guys go speeding past me again.


CONAN: So the car's small enough for them to put it back on its wheels.

RUBY: Yeah. They just obviously got out of the car and they just righted it and away they went. And I'm like, I need them.


RUBY: When I got to the turn-off for 80, I can't remember the place, but to get back on 80 you had to reduce your speed to 20. I was doing 15. I'm like, what am I going to do now? I mean, it was so - I've never been more frightened. My dad was a truck driver and he taught me all of the tricks of the trade, but it was scary. And in that case I was glad I didn't stop. But I hope the others got help.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that. Appreciate it.

RUBY: You're welcome.

CONAN: Sue Shellenbarger, that suggests that, well, even sometimes we don't act, it all works out for the best.


SHELLENBARGER: Common sense weighs in. Maybe Ruby would've made it worse if she had added her car to the congestion. Who knows?

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

SHELLENBARGER: It's my pleasure.

CONAN: Sue Shellenbarger writes The Wall Street Journal's Work and Family column, with us today from member station KLCC in Eugene. You can find a link to her piece, "Are You a Hero or a Bystander," at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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