March 4, 2012: An SUV skids out of control on icy East University Avenue. It crashes head-on into another vehicle. Cries for help come from inside the mangled SUV. A woman passing by the scene stops her car, climbs inside the wrecked vehicle and pulls out a critically injured boy.
June 2, 2012: A Saylor Township house explodes. A woman is still inside. Her retired neighbor runs inside to save her.
These are two stories of ordinary people who put themselves at risk while trying to make a difference.
The American Red Cross Serving Greater Iowa will honor 16 such “heroes of the heartland” at an awards breakfast today at the Hy-Vee Conference Center in West Des Moines.
The people who have acted with bravery and selflessness tend to sound a similar refrain — that what they’ve done is nothing extraordinary.
But on that point, these heroes are wrong, research in psychology and social science has found, despite their repeated protestations.
“I just did what anybody would do,” said 70-year-old John Ostring, the retiree who ran into a burning building and pulled his injured neighbor to safety.
Angie Cupp-Hommer, 31, who stopped to aid people in the March 2012 car wreck, said: “It’s just what you do.”
Well, not really. Many — if not most — people do nothing in times of crisis. The phenomenon is known as “the bystander effect.”
“There are a lot of very subtle factors when people help versus when they don’t,” said Craig A. Anderson, Iowa State University professor of psychology. Helping “makes you stand out, makes you very visible and feel you’re going to become the center of unwanted attention. That kind of thinking comes into play at a subconscious level.”
In short, Anderson said, people mentally talk themselves out of acting in a crisis without even thinking about it. Some don’t want to take responsibility for the situation.
Some don’t feel they’re qualified to help. Others believe someone else is going to take charge, something called “diffusion of responsibility.”
Anderson is quick to add: “This does not mean people don’t care. There are a lot of powerful situational forces at work that kind of get in the way of people helping.”
But, Anderson noted, “Simply knowing about the phenomenon or reading about cases where someone helped increases the likelihood that people will intervene.”
Consider, then, the actions of Ostring and Cupp-Hommer.
With house on fire, he runs inside to help
On June 2, 2012, John Ostring was tinkering in the workshop of his Saylor Township home. He heard a boom and felt the building rock a bit.
He stepped outside to see the roof of the neighbor’s house now atop his own fence. The home was burning.
Ostring, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War, shouted in to his wife, Mary. He told her to call 911 and then get out of the house in case the fire spread across the narrow property line.
Mary Ostring yelled back, “You’d better check on Patty.”
Patty was 56-year-old Patricia Grandmaitre, who rented the house on Northwest 50th Place next door to the Ostrings. She had not lived there long, but they knew each other well enough to say hello or have friendly chats across the fence.
John Ostring approached the engulfed home. He yelled for Grandmaitre. He heard nothing. He found her inside on the floor, badly burned.
“I just picked her up and got her out of there,” he said. “She was burned real bad — on her face, her arms, legs.”
Saylor Township firefighters, medics and Polk County sheriff’s deputies arrived soon. Grandmaitre was rushed to the hospital. She survived her injuries, but Ostring never saw or heard from his former neighbor again.
“I heard she was living with her sister down in Austin, Texas,” he said. “I hope she’s doing OK.”
The house was destroyed. Ostring, now 70, doesn’t know whether his military training helped him when he charged into the fire.
“They teach you a little bit of everything in the Army,” he said. “I didn’t think too much about it. It’s just the sort of thing you’re supposed to do, I guess.”
Rushing to rescue trapped boy from SUV
Freezing rain fell in Des Moines on Sunday, March 4, 2012. Cupp-Hommer was driving in the 3700 block of East University Avenue when she came across the wreckage of a head-on collision. An SUV was overturned.
Cupp-Hommer stopped her car. She ran over to the SUV. Danielle Levy was in the front seat. She was hurt, but her mind was not on herself.
“She just yelled, ‘My baby! Get my baby!’ ” Cupp-Hommer remembered.
The damage to the vehicle prevented Cupp-Hommer from opening the back door. She crawled through the shattered rear window of the SUV.
She got hold of Levy’s son, 4-year-old Fredrick Morris Jr. Another bystander pulled Cupp-Hommer out by her ankles while she clutched the child.
The boy wasn’t breathing. Cupp-Hommer, who was studying to be a nurse, began CPR.
Medics and police soon arrived. The child, his mother, a passenger in her car and the driver of a second car were rushed to Iowa Methodist Medical Center.
Cupp-Hommer held vigil with Fredrick’s family for five days at the hospital. The injuries, though, proved too great. He died March 10.
Cupp-Hommer has carried her grief for the boy. She has kept in touch with Levy, who lives in Oskaloosa but could not be reached for this story.
“The first anniversary was pretty hard,” she said.
The incident has changed the path of Cupp-Hommer’s life. She decided to get more involved.
She sought and earned her state paramedic certification. She now volunteers for the Pleasant Hill Fire Department and is studying for her registered nurse certification.
“I want to be able to help whenever and wherever I can,” she said. “It’s what you do.”
Inspired by the actions of Ostring and Cupp-Hommer, perhaps others will.