Here’s a list of 10 acts of heroism that will likely surprise you. Some of them come from unlikely sources, and most of them required amazing courage to overcome impossible odds. They range from war heroes to cops who went above and beyond the call of duty, and bystanders who turned into saviors.
1. In 1998, two train conductors in Indiana spotted a two-year-old girl on the tracks. They put on the brakes, but there wasn’t enough time to stop. So one of them climbed onto the front of the train and kicked her out of the way.
By putting on the brakes, the conductors were able to slow the train to 10 mph. The conductor who climbed on the front of the train considered jumping off to sprint ahead of the train and grab her, but he would’ve had to stay ahead of it while running on an inclined, gravel bed. So instead, he lowered himself onto the snow guard at the very tip of the train. As they approached, the girl rolled off the rail onto the rock-covered edge of the tracks, but she was still close enough to get hit by the train. So the conductor kicked her, and then jumped off to check on her. He wasn’t sure if he had successfully gotten her out of the way. But he had — the kick had knocked her down an embankment.
He ran and scooped her up. She was bleeding from a cut on her head and had bumped her lip, but that was all. When paramedics arrived and tried to take the girl from the conductor, she clung to his shirt and didn’t want to let go.(1,2)
2. In 2013, a 14-year-old boy in Michigan saved an abduction victim who was being chased by her kidnapper. The boy hid her in his house and stood guard with a hunting knife while the kidnapper tried to get in.
The 14-year-old boy’s name is James Persyn III. He was home with his two younger siblings, ages 11 and two when he heard banging at the front door and a woman screaming to be let inside. He opened the door to see a woman with clear, packing tape wrapped around her with bruises on her face and a broken arm.
The woman was a college senior who had been abducted from the school parking lot by a 30-year-old ex-convict named Eric Ramsey. Ramsey had taken the woman to his mother’s house, bound her in tape, and raped her. He then put her in his car, and while driving told her he was going to kill her. She jumped out of the moving car and ran to a house. When James opened the door, she explained someone was trying to kill her, and then Ramsey pulled into the driveway.
James locked all the doors and took the woman, his siblings, and the family dog to hide in the bathroom. He grabbed a hunting knife he had recently got as a Christmas gift. The woman called 911, and James called his father.
Ramsey was banging on the front door and shouting “Let me in or I’ll kill you.” After a while, he gave up and decided to burn down the house. He poured gas around the base of the house, lit it, and left. The father got there while the fire was still manageable and put it out. The police arrived shortly thereafter.(1,2)
3. Some prison inmates in California sign up to fight wildfires, at times risking their lives for less than $2 an hour.
There are about 4,000 inmates in California’s firefighter program. To join the program, inmates have to pass a fitness test and then are given as little as three weeks of training instead of the three-year apprenticeship that firefighters typically go through. Although they only make $2 an hour, the pay is still better than other jobs available in prison which typically pay between eight cents and 95 cents per hour.
But some of the inmates say they would do it for free just for the experience and the feeling it gives them. “It feels good, when you see kids with signs saying, ‘Thank you for saving my house, thank you for saving my dog.’ It feels good that you saved somebody’s home, you know?”
Several inmates have died fighting fires. In 2016, a 22-year-old female prisoner died with less than two months left on her sentence.(source)
4. In 2014, a 15-year-old in Pakistan named Aitazaz Hassan tackled a suicide bomber. The bomber then set off his bomb. Hassan prevented the bomber from reaching a high school with more than 1,000 students.
Hassan was running late for school that day and was on his way there with two friends. Then a stranger wearing a school uniform stopped them and asked directions to the school. This made the boys suspicious. They lived in Hangu, a troubled district of Pakistan that has been hit hard by terrorist attacks.
Hassan’s friends backed off and the stranger tried to get away, but Hassan pursued him and started throwing rocks at him. As the bomber approached the school gates, Hassan tackled him. As they scuffled, the bomb detonated killing the bomber and Hassan and injuring two others. Hassan likely saved the lives of hundreds of students. For Hassan’s act of heroism, the school was renamed after him.(1,2)
5. In 2017, a homeless man in Las Vegas saved two children from a fire. To get them out, he had to pull on a locked security door until it bent enough to open.
A homeless man named Anival Angulo was walking down the street when he saw smoke coming from an apartment unit. He walked closer to check it out and heard children screaming. So he jumped over a locked gate and tried to open the door. But there was a steel security door that was deadbolted shut. There was a three-year-old girl on the other side who couldn’t open it. So Angulo yanked on the door until it bent enough that the deadbolt unlatched and it opened. While pulling the girl to safety, through the smoke he saw an infant’s leg on the floor. So he went back inside and rescued a 10-month-old baby.
The children’s grandfather was home and in a back bedroom when the fire broke out. It was caused by a pan of cooking grease igniting on the stove. The grandfather wasn’t able to get to the children because of the fire. But some other good Samaritans helped the grandfather get out through a back window. The fire department said if it wasn’t for Angulo’s heroism the children certainly would have died.(1,2)
6. In Louisiana in 2017, a 56-year-old woman saved a police officer by jumping on the back of a 28-year-old man that was attacking him. The attacker was hitting the officer with his own baton and tried to grab his gun until the woman pulled his hand away.
In Louisiana, a police officer found a 28-year-old man sleeping in his car. The officer could see drug paraphernalia in the car, so he tried to arrest him. But the man fought the officer and started hitting him over the head with his own baton. A 56-year-old woman named Vickie Williams-Tillman was driving by and stopped to ask if the officer needed help. He didn’t respond, but he locked eyes with her, and the woman realized he couldn’t speak. She called 911, then got out of her car and jumped on the attacker’s back. She pulled the attacker’s hand away when he tried to grab the officer’s gun. More police arrived shortly and arrested the man. The police department said her act of heroism may have saved the officer’s life. She said she only did what needed to be done, and that “you don’t think about the risk.”(source)
7. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, a group of elderly retirees volunteered to help with the cleanup so younger workers could avoid the radiation.
A retired engineer came up with the plan after seeing young men on the news working in areas with dangerous levels of radiation. He said it made more sense for old men to do the work because by the time they could develop cancer from radiation exposure, they would have died of natural causes anyway.
“I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live. Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop.”
So, he started contacting some of his retired friends and later used social media to gather more volunteers. In April 2011, they formed a group called the Skilled Veterans Corps for Fukushima. By 2012, it had 700 members, and most of them were skilled engineers and technicians. Though the group gained some attention around the world, Japanese media didn’t seem to take them seriously, and some Japanese politicians were initially opposed to the plan. The politicians argued that the disaster was being managed, and they did not require the help of a “suicide squad.”
Eventually, they were allowed to go inside the plant for a group inspection, but their offer to stay and help was rejected. They were told there was “no room” for them to work there. Representatives of the group have traveled to the US to ask the government to put pressure on Japan to better handle the disaster cleanup. The group’s founder said there’s still time for the government to change its mind about accepting more help since the cleanup will likely take decades.(1,2,3)
8. In 1940, a Polish resistance fighter deliberately got imprisoned at Auschwitz. His plan was to gather intelligence and organize inmate resistance. He provided reports that were among the first information to reach Western Allies about the true nature of the camps.
Witold Pilecki was a cavalry platoon commander in the Polish Army when the Germans invaded. After his government surrendered, he founded the Secret Polish Army. Then he came up with his plan to get into Auschwitz. When the Germans were conducting a “street roundup,” he deliberately got caught.
Once inside, he created an underground organization among the inmates. They focused on helping other inmates by improving morale, relaying news from the outside, and providing extra food and clothing. They also trained inmates on how to help take over the camp if the Allies launched a rescue operation.
Using a radio built by inmates, he broadcasted reports on conditions in the camp and the number of inmate arrivals and deaths. The Polish resistance forwarded the reports to the British government. The reports were a key source of information for the Allies as little was known about the camp. At that time, it was assumed to be a large prison rather than a death camp.
He had hoped the Allies would choose to assault the camp or at least airdrop weapons into it, but those plans were rejected as impossible to carry out. So Pilecki decided to break out and see if he could convince them in person to rescue the inmates. In April 1943, he and two other inmates overpowered a guard when they were working the night shift at a camp bakery located outside the fence and escaped.(1,2)
9. In 2013, when a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, a worker in another garment factory across the street rushed in to help. Over two days, he pulled more than 30 people from the rubble. Three of the people he rescued had body parts pinned down by debris, and he performed amputations so he could pull them to safety.
The rescuer’s name is Didar Hossain. One of the people he saved was a young girl he found on the second day of his rescue efforts. Her right hand was trapped. Hosssain realized the only way to save her was to amputate the hand, so he went to find a doctor to help. The doctor said he wouldn’t go into the wreckage because he was too afraid of another collapse. But he gave Hossain a knife and some anesthetic and told him to do it himself.
Hossain said that both he and the girl screamed and cried as he amputated her hand. He later rescued a man by amputating his leg and another man by amputating his foot. When Hossain went to visit the girl in the hospital, he apologized that he wasn’t able to save her without cutting off her hand. She replied, “If you hadn’t done it I wouldn’t have got out alive; it’s I who should say sorry to you for the hardship you went through in order to rescue me.”(1,2)
10. In 2014, a police officer pulled over a speeding driver in upstate New York and discovered it was a frantic father trying to get his 22-month-old son to the hospital. The boy was not breathing. The officer quickly drove them to the hospital while simultaneously giving the boy chest compressions.
The officer’s name is Patrick Hildenbrand. When he had tried to pull over the speeding car, the father slammed on his breaks, jumped out, and ran toward the police SUV cradling his son in his arms and yelling that he wasn’t breathing.
Hildenbrand was previously a firefighter for 17 years and knew the importance of starting CPR as soon as possible. At that point, he had to make a quick decision about whether to start CPR and wait for paramedics or race to the hospital. After loading the father and son into the backseat of his vehicle, he took off for the hospital. As he drove, he reached his hand through the partition and into the backseat so he could do chest compressions and feel for a pulse.
The emergency room doctor said the boy probably wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for Hildenbrand starting CPR on the way to the hospital. “The earlier you start it, the better outcomes you have.”(source)