Two deaths that made life precious

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Their bravery struck a deep chord.UNITED by deed and inseparable in terms of self-sacrifice, two men share this year's Herald New Zealander of the Year accolade.

Austin Hemmings and Tony McClean are perhaps slightly unusual recipients of an honour that recognises a particularly notable contribution to national life.

It was not their lot to achieve a miracle breakthrough in science or perform marvellous deeds in a sporting arena. Yet their bravery and instinctive behaviour in doing what was right struck an especially deep chord in a society that is said often to be increasingly individualistic and uncaring of one another. The impact was profound. Throughout New Zealand, people paused and wondered whether they would have had the fortitude to act as Mr Hemmings and Mr McClean did.

Mr Hemmings, a successful middle-class businessman, was the ultimate good Samaritan when he went to the aid of a Samoan call-centre worker who was calling for help in central Auckland. The 44-year-old father of three was fatally stabbed as he sought to rescue a woman he did not know.

Mr McClean was equally selfless when a group from Elim Christian College was confronted by the swollen waters of the Mangatepopo River. The 29-year-old teacher strapped a disabled pupil to him, an act that, according to rescuers, severely reduced his chance of reaching the side of the river before being hurled over a dam.

In an ideal world, people who have the strength to respond this way to extremely dangerous situations would survive and be feted.

Curiously, however, the deaths of Mr Hemmings and Mr McClean triggered a more personal response.

People want such honourable sacrifice to have a consequence. Many not only wondered whether they would do the right thing in similar circumstances but, after a period of introspection and re-evaluation, willed it to be so.

Effectively, they shunned a society in which helping a stranger was regarded as unusual or intrusive, and condemned the apathy of those who choose to be passers-by.

Mr Hemmings and Mr McClean would have appreciated that legacy. At Mr Hemmings' funeral, a mourner spoke of his high integrity, strong moral fibre and wish to change society for the better. Similarly, Mr McClean's father spoke of his wish that "hope and goodness can come out of something which is traumatic and awful. And that's what we want our children's lives to offer - a turning point to other people".

When a deed is as inspiring as that of his son, and that of Mr Hemmings, such sentiments cannot but have an enduring resonance. Their actions made the awarding of the Herald accolade a straightforward matter.

Such was also largely the case in the naming of racing driver Scott Dixon as the sportsperson of the year and Reserve Bank Governor Alan Bollard as the Business Herald's person of the year. The claiming of a prize as internationally renowned as the Indianapolis 500 cemented Dixon's credentials in what was, overall, a very good year for New Zealand sport.

The naming of Dr Bollard is somewhat more contentious but he deserves particular recognition for his resolve in standing aside from the prevailing clamour and seeking to steer New Zealanders clear of approaching financial icebergs.

Repeatedly, he warned debt-laden households of the the perils of an ongoing spending spree, and cautioned banks about their imprudent lending practices. Armed only with the official cash rate, his efforts proved unavailing.

Now, the icebergs have turned out to be far bigger than even Dr Bollard imagined and he has the task of softening the impact as much as possible. People should pay more attention to what he has to say in 2009.

- NZ Herald

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