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7 Stories of the Everyday Hero Within

A rampaging bear, a deadly fire, a murderous gunman and more: How we find the courage to step up when facing life-or-death risk 

William Ayotte, Vickie Williams-Tillman, Qemal Agaj, Shirley White

Steven Laxton

William Ayotte, Vickie Williams-Tillman, Qemal Agaj and Shirley White


Donnie Navidad

In 2013, Navidad, then 61, saved a woman who toppled from a football stadium in Oakland, Calif.

My friend and I were at the Coliseum to see the Raiders play the Tennessee Titans. After the game, as we were heading out, someone’s phone fell and smashed near us, and then a bunch of people started pointing up. There was a woman up there on the edge of the railing. I turned to Glenn and said, “Do you think she’s gonna jump?” He said, “Oh, boy, she’s falling as we speak."

It’s about a four-story drop from where she fell, and — without thinking — I just put my arms out as she came toward me. Listen, I was in the Marines, and even though that was 40-some years ago, I still think like a Marine; fortunately, I still react like one once in a while. She leveled out flat as she hit my arms, and bounced off me and fell about four feet away. I fell to the ground, too, from the impact, and I blacked out for a minute. When I came to, Glenn was holding up fingers and saying, “How many do you see?” I was OK. The woman was alive but was in a coma for a while and had brain surgery. She later told me she was very grateful — they call her Miracle Girl. But what bothered me was that I didn’t do a better job of saving her. I couldn’t really latch on to her.

"Donnie’s seen a lot. S--- doesn’t scare him. Many people would turn away if they saw 100 pounds dropping down on them. But he just saved her life."

— Glenn Israel, friend
William Ayotte holding a shovel

Steven Laxton

William Ayotte

In 2013, Ayotte, then 69, battled a polar bear that was savagely mauling a woman in Manitoba, Canada.

It was 5 a.m. when I heard somebody screaming, “Help! It’s a bear!” I opened my front door, and there was a 275-pound polar bear sitting on its haunches with a woman in its mouth, waving her around like a rag doll. I thought to myself, I’ve got no weapon or anything. Then I saw my shovel sitting there and found myself going to get it. Once I picked it up, I thought, Well, am I going to do anything, or is that woman going to die? So down the steps I went. 

 "'Thank you' will never be enough. He gave me life. It’s the most remarkable thing a person can do — risk his life for another human being, a stranger!"

— Erin Greene, attack victim

When I got over there, I stepped up and hit the bear in the eye. I’d heard this is the best way to fight a bear. He let go of the woman, and she ran into my house. The bear reached out and grabbed ahold of me, and the mauling was on. He tore off my right ear, and I was waiting for him to bite me again. A neighbor fired a shotgun, but it didn’t do any good, so he jumped into his truck and gunned it toward us. I was on my belly on the ground, watching this vehicle speeding our way, and it stopped about two feet away before the bear let me go.

I spent seven days in the hospital. They worked on me for four hours one day, to staple my wounds, and then for four hours the next day, putting my ear back on. So I came out of it pretty good.

I never saw myself as a hero and still don’t. You’re dealt a situation, and you either respond or you don’t do anything. People say, “Would you have done anything differently?” I haven’t the faintest idea. The only thing I could think was, If I don’t do anything, she’s not going to make it.

Qemal Agaj on a beach

Steven Laxton

Qemal Agaj

In the fall of 2007, Agaj, then 65, rescued a swimmer in Florida.

It was a gorgeous morning on Cocoa Beach when these green-black clouds rolled in and the water got very choppy. I am a photographer and was staring at what was almost an artistic scene. Suddenly, this guy on the beach started yelling, “My wife! My wife! She’s in the ocean and can’t get out!”

I was born and raised by the sea in my country, Albania, and we used to go to the beach almost all summer, every day, for hours and hours. In other words, I know how tides work, from a lifetime of swimming in them. This was a rip current, which meant the tide takes you out fast but fights you from swimming back in. Another man I’d never met before — a great big guy around 50 years old — jumped into the water with me, and we swam straight to the lady. We got right out there. I knew from getting caught in a tide like this when I was 13 or 14 that you have to swim back at an angle, not directly toward shore. But it was still hard swimming.

This was a terrible experience. Somebody died, but somebody was saved, and it’s because Qemal didn’t think, I could get hurt. That’s who he is.

— Flora Agaj, Qemal’s wife

We told the lady — she was in her late 60s — to swim next to us and stay calm, to follow me and press my shoulder if she needed help. You don’t want someone hanging on you; they can pull you under when they’re afraid of drowning. But she was swimming OK. Meanwhile, the ocean was getting rougher and rougher. The woman and I swam at an angle to shore, but the other man got separated. We couldn’t see him. This is the worst part. By the time the rescue team got to him, it was too late. He died trying to save a woman he never met.

The experience changed me. The man who drowned was a father with two kids. For a long while, I couldn’t get his death out of my mind.  At the same time, the woman is alive. We’ve become friends. It reminds me every day to be optimistic about life and, especially, to try to do good things with the brief time we have, to be good.


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James “Bud” Garvey 

In November 2016, Garvey, then 76, rescued a man from a fiery wreck near Imler, Pa.

I own a race car museum 82 miles from where I live. My wife and I go up every Saturday. One morning we were buzzing along the interstate when I saw smoke ahead. There was fire in a ditch, and I said to my wife, “That looks like a car burning.” I got out and scrambled down. There was a fellow sitting in the middle of a burning car! The woods were on fire, and flames were all over the front of the vehicle. I hollered to him to come on out. He very calmly said, “I can’t.” The way he said it was eerie. I knew I was his only hope. I tried the door, but it was jammed.

Just then the front tire blew out and sent me flying backward into the brush. I staggered to the car and saw the guy was losing consciousness. The fire was  going to town. I crawled in the window and braced my feet against the door and got ahold of him under his arms — and he came out halfway but was still stuck.

When Bud got to the car, I knew he wasn’t going to stop until he got this man to safety. He did it almost automatically. I’m so proud of him.

— Nancy Garvey, Bud’s wife

I rolled him to the side, and whatever was holding him broke loose. I was still in pretty good shape at 76, and dragged him up the hill to the road. My wife’s a retired RN, and she kept him calm until the state police came.

I drove race cars. As an amateur pilot, I was in two airplane crashes. One time I landed in a tree and had to climb out. So you can say this was instinct based on a lifetime of experience. Mostly, I knew I couldn’t leave this man, who turned out to have a couple of young kids, there to burn.

Shirley White holding a water hose

Steven Laxton

Shirley White

White, then 85, helped preserve the Montecito Heights area of Santa Rosa, Calif., from a fire in October 2017

The crash woke me up. Just after midnight, on a very windy Sunday last October, I heard a very loud noise, and it was a large fir tree falling into my yard from the neighbor’s yard. It crushed a greenhouse and took down the tip of a power line as it landed. I’ve been in my house almost 50 years and know how much damage wind and trees can do, but as I was coming downstairs and glanced outside, I was horrified to see brilliant flames outside my window, way up over my head.

I live alone­ — my husband died six years ago — and I thought, I have to call 911. But there was no time. I thought, This could go everywhere. It could burn the whole hill. I threw on something over my nightgown, raced outside, grabbed a hose and started spraying water as hard as I could. The wind had already spread the flames to a live oak and then to some blackberry vines on the edge of my driveway. It was really howling now, and I could feel the heat, but I just braced myself and kept on squirting.

This must have gone on for five minutes, but it felt like an hour. An architect neighbor smelled smoke and ran over to help. Then the couple across the driveway came, and someone called the fire department. When the fire trucks arrived, they yelled at us to move back, but I couldn’t stop. I said, “We have to keep water on this fire.”

I had no idea I had done anything special. People I never met were knocking on my front door the next day, saying, “You’re a hero. You saved the hill.” But I was just the first responder. I saw what I saw, and I took action.

Thousands of people lost everything that night in other parts of California. We were fortunate to be spared. But I don’t think it was a miracle. The reality is, my children weren’t there and my husband wasn’t there, and if I wanted to stay in the home I loved, I would have to step up. So I did — but then got a lot of help.

"I’m 61, and her heroism reminded me of what I already knew: It’s not about age; it’s about spirit. You’re never too old to fight a determined fight."

— Mark Quattrocchi, neighbor
Vickie Williams-Tillman standing in front of where she jumped on the criminals back

Steven Laxton

Vickie Williams-Tillman

In February 2017, Williams-Tillman, then 57, came to the aid of a police officer struggling with a dangerous suspect in Baton Rouge, La.

On a beautiful Sunday morning in February, I was cruising down the street, listening to gospel music before church, and turned down a little side street. I saw a squad car stopped and a police officer and another man in a scuffle. I rolled down my window and called out to the officer, “Do you need help?”

"I’ve been an officer for 22 years and never had anybody help me like that. You don’t want to mess with that grandmother."

— Billy Aime, Baton Rouge P.D.

He nodded, so I called the police and gave the location. But as I waited for them to arrive, I started to worry about the officer, whose name is Billy Aime. A pair of handcuffs dangled from a wrist of the suspect. Officer Billy’s nightstick, flashlight and radio were on the ground. It turned out that before I had gotten there, while other people drove right on past, the suspect had hit Billy on the head with the nightstick.

“Are you going to be OK?” I asked him. He didn’t answer me, but we locked eyes — his were watery, and I felt mine get watery, too. Those eyes said, “Don’t leave me.”

The next thing I knew, I had gotten out of my car, and I was gliding toward them like I had on roller skates. It was almost like I wasn’t in my body. My mind just went blank and free. I felt so at peace, completely safe, even though I am only 5 foot 2. As I got closer I saw blood and hair smeared on the cruiser. And then I noticed that both men had a hand on the officer’s gun, so I grabbed the suspect’s hand on the gun, twisted his arm behind him and jumped on his back.

Officer Billy, who is 6 foot 6, fell on me, and soon we were all down on the ground. I heard sirens, and when I looked up, I saw backup coming.

I know some people who say they would never have done what I did, but that is them and not me. One thing about me is that I’m not worried what people think of me. All I’m worried about is what God thinks of me.

Stephen Willeford holding a gun in front of a church

Steven Laxton

Stephen Willeford

In November 2017, Willeford, then 55, wounded a gunman who had just murdered 26 people in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

I was in my bedroom, relaxing before work on a Sunday morning, when my daughter came in and said she heard gunshots coming from the First Baptist Church down the street. I went and got my firearm from the safe and ran outside without even putting on shoes, because I knew every pop, pop, pop might represent somebody’s life.

The shooter came out of the church wearing black tactical gear, saw me right away and started shooting at me. I returned fire. He hit the truck I was using for cover. He hit the car behind me. He hit the house behind me.

I’m a former NRA instructor and competitive shooter, and I’m good with rifles because I trained during most of my adult life. I’d never been in a situation like this and never wanted to be. But let me tell you, those many years of training made a difference. Using a holographic red-dot scope, I hit the shooter in a small area not covered by his bulletproof vest. He still managed to get away. He got into his vehicle and fired another couple of rounds through his side window.

"Me? I was terrified. But I knew right away that Dad was going to step in. It’s not in him to hide. That’s just not what he is."

—Stephanie Willeford, daughter

Someone in a pickup truck at a stop sign witnessed the whole thing, and I tapped on his window and said, “We gotta catch this guy.” I got in, and the chase was on. As a Christian, I really felt that God was protecting us and guiding us. We were driving just as fast as this guy’s truck would move, and we caught up to the shooter. He pulled over and stopped, and as I started to open the door, the shooter accelerated again and hit a road sign before going over a curb into a field. That’s when the police say he shot himself; at that point we had already called 911, and the police arrived five minutes later. Twenty-six people were tragically killed, but the survivors can rest easy knowing that this guy won’t ever hurt anyone again.

People hear this story and think I’m some kind of Rambo. I’m not. I’m the biggest marshmallow in the world. I’m the first person to cry at a sad movie. But you don’t mess with my neighbors, my friends or my family.

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