We tend to toss around the word hero without much thought. We fixate on actors and athletes -- people who've somehow lassoed fame long enough to walk red carpets and lure flash photographers. But sometimes we neglect to consider those who truly demonstrate heroic qualities -- those who make crucial split-second decisions or plot carefully constructed plans to rescue people in danger, all while putting their own lives at risk.
In these five amazing rescue stories, you'll meet courageous people who braved death to save others. These champion lifesavers range from average citizens to high-profile political prisoners, and have rescued loners in distress and entire communities. You'll even meet some altruistic animals that masterminded rescues humans couldn't engineer. How did these rescuers brave everything from fire to ice to save lives?
Jesus Garcia and Nacozari
The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child. But Jesús García proved that it takes a very brave man to rescue a village. On November 7, 1907, railroad engineer Jesús García saved the entire village of Nacozari in Sonora, Mexico.
García noticed that a box car containing dynamite had stopped in the village had caught fire, and he quickly drove the car away from the town. The dynamite exploded, killing García and 12 other rail workers. In fact, the blast was felt 10 miles (16 kilometers) away from the scene. García's brave sacrifice saved the entire town of Nacozari.
The town, now known as Nacozari de García, continues to honor its hero with a monument in the town square. Many streets in Mexico bear the hero's name. Local officials have even dubbed a soccer stadium Estadio Héroe de Nacozari, and the entire country of Mexico celebrates November 7 as a national holiday.
Moko and the Whales
Sometimes humans just can't cut it, and it takes a very brave animal to pull off an amazing rescue. In 2008, a friendly bottlenose dolphin saved a sperm whale and her calf by leading them off of a sandbar on the New Zealand coast.
After making their best efforts to lead the whales to safety, a group of rescuers were preparing to euthanize them when a dolphin named Moko appeared and seemed to communicate with the whales. While humans had attempted to guide the whales for hours, Moko got his message across in a matter of minutes. He led the whales through a 200-yard (182-meter) channel to the sea.
The whales haven't been seen since, but Moko, who died in 2010, frequently returned to play with swimmers in the bay. Perhaps he was looking to see if there were any more creatures in need of a helping flipper.
Escape from Everest
On May 25, 2006, climber Lincoln Hall was left for dead by his guides on the side of Mount Everest. The next day, his crew released a statement announcing his death. Little did they know that Hall was very much alive, but in dire circumstances. He was suffering from altitude sickness, which had caused him to become disoriented. He was left alone on the mountain with no hat, gloves or oxygen bottles.
A day later, Daniel Mazur and his climbing group came across Hall. Mazur, who was just two hours away from the peak, abandoned his Everest quest and left his party to carry Hall down to the camp at the base of the mountain, which was a 4-hour trek. Just days before, another climber, David Sharp, died 1,000 feet (304 meters) from the summit when dozens of people passed him by because they didn't want to risk their own Everest glory.
Miracle on the Hudson
On Jan. 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 began a routine journey that ended as anything but. Shortly after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport, the Airbus A320, which held 155 people, lost power to both engines after they were struck by birds.
Rather than panicking in a moment of sheer terror, pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III decided to land the plane in the Hudson River in an attempt to avoid crashing in the densely populated area. Amazingly, no one was killed.
After landing in the Hudson, nearby ferry boats, police boats, fire boats, and tugboats picked up passengers who were standing up to their waists in 35-degrees-Fahrenheit (1.6-degrees-Celsius) water and 18 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 7 degrees Celsius) air temperatures. What could have ended in a disaster -- in a city already haunted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- turned out to be one of the most amazing flight rescue stories ever. For his quick thinking and skill, Sullenberger was lauded as a hero.
While campaigning in southern Colombia on February 23, 2002, presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, a French and Colombian citizen, was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Betancourt had been a strong critic of the organization and had been warned of the dangers in visiting the FARC-controlled region in which she was campaigning. Betancourt, however, felt strongly about reaching out to what she viewed as one of the most oppressed regions of her country.
For the six years of her captivity, little was known about Betancourt's condition or her whereabouts. However, in July 2008, Betancourt and 14 others were finally freed in an elaborate rescue operation led by the Colombian government. Officials duped rebels by posing as members of a nongovernment organization and told FARC rebels that they were flying the hostages to meet rebel leader Alfonso Cano. Betancourt's recue was celebrated around the world, and she began a campaign to increase awareness about other political prisoners around the world.
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