The heroes of 2012

By Abby Gillies


Hats off to those who risked lives, helped the needy and inspired others through their heroic actions. Abby Gillies salutes the heroes of 2012.


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Early on the morning of May 12, eight-year-old Michelle O'Brien showed humanity, kindness, and selfless bravery when faced with the unthinkable.

The Turangi girl and her father Kevin had just dropped off some tourists to walk the Tongariro Crossing when they came across a horrific crash scene only metres from their front gate.

The fatal crash killed American university students Daniella Lekhno, 20, Roch Jauberty, 21, and Austin Brashears, 21, and injured four others when their van left the road and rolled several times near Rangipo.

As Mr O'Brien, a former ambulance officer, tended to those at the scene, his daughter and the less-severely injured went back to the house where, unbeknown to him, she set about caring for them.

``I came back down to the house to do a secondary assessment on them but Michelle had already dealt with them,'' the proud father said at the time.

``She'd gone around and washed the blood off some of them and put plasters on cuts, given them blankets and was massaging the shoulders of those who were in shock ... one of them was just shaking.''

Typically defined for their brave deeds, courage, abilities or other noble qualities, this year's heroes' actions are wide-ranging, from the sporting arena to brave acts by neighbours and strangers.

Some trained hard to achieve their hero title, others were the result of coincidence and timing.

But regardless of how they get there, they played an important role in our culture, said registered psychologist Sara Chatwin.

``Heroes are people that we need in our world to give us focus, to give us something to aspire to,'' she said.

When Mahe Drysdale came to the rescue of a tourist who fell onto rocks he earned double hero status.

The Olympic men's single sculls gold medallist was walking the Tongariro Crossing with two other rowers when they came across an backpacker who had injured his back and arms in a fall.

Thirty-four-year-old Drysdale called 111, and the trio stayed with the man until the rescue helicopter arrived.

``He was pretty shaken up when we first got to him, he was in shock and, although he had superficial cuts to his arms, he clearly had a very sore back,'' Drysdale said.

Five months earlier, along with New Zealand's other Olympic medallists Drysdale was celebrated as a hero as he stood on the podium, a hero in front of Kiwi fans in London.

Other heroes are more unlikely

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom made an extraordinary transition from police suspect to hero.

Arrested in January in an FBI operation against internet piracy, the wealthy mogul has tweeted his way to hero status, heralded by many as a visionary digital entrepreneur and calls for him to be made New Zealander of the year.

But equally, hero status can come from the smallest gesture.

Consider the actions of New York police officer Lawrence DePrimo, whose kind-hearted gesture towards a homeless man in Times Square that was captured on camera became an international image of warmth and compassion.

On a freezing winter's night last month, Mr DePrimo came across a a barefooted homeless man, went into a nearby shop and bought him a pair of expensive new boots.

As he bent down to help the man put the boots on his blistered feet, a passerby snapped a picture that has since gone viral, racking up more than 1.6 million views.

Others have risked their own lives to save others, rescuing strangers from burning building, beaches and river incidents.

Aaron Mitchell, 21, broke his pelvis and chipped his spine when he slipped and fell into a blowhole at Muriwai Beach on Auckland's West Coast on September 30, suffering ``absolute agony'' as waves bashed his body against the rocks.

The supermarket worker believed he would have drowned had a rescuer not appeared and held him out of the water until emergency services arrived.

Reaching out through the media, a recovering Mr Mitchell met his hero 26-year-old chef Jordan Rippey, when he read the article and visited him at North Shore Hospital.

``The great thing is I actually got to thank him in person and shake his hand. I'm pretty chuffed about that,'' said Mr Mitchell.

Some shrug off the hero tag, saying they simply did what anyone else would.

When an axe-wielding man entered a Whangamata bank in October, two quick-thinking bystanders waited for staff to get out of the building and then barricaded him inside until police arrived.

Animals and those who rescue them also featured.

Standing alongside Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker, Irish wolfhound Guinness, known as the earthquake dog, was presented with a Local Hero Medal for his role in clean-up work with his owner Sean Scully.

The pair led a voluntary crew of thousands to assist in the quake-devastated eastern suburbs, with the beer-loving dog helping to take people's minds off the tragedy.

Another Cantabrian, Donna Moot, was also recognised for her work rescuing and housing more more than 250 abandoned turtles at her Somerfield home since the February 2011 earthquake.

Reluctant hero Godley Evans was this year honoured with a Royal Humane Society bravery medal for dragging and elderly man from his burning Rangiora home and then going back to search for his wife.

He was driving home on September 20, 2009 when he saw flames and smoke billowing from the house belonging to Jack and Mary Jean Chaston.

Mr Chaston survived but sadly his wife died that day in hospital.

The pensioner applauded Mr Evans' bravery, saying he ``deserves all accolades he gets''.

``It was three years ago but I still think about it every day. My wife and I got on so well and I'll never forget her. It was a terrible tragedy what happened.''

This year also saw the passing of some of the world's most respected achievers.

The world mourned when the man described as a true American hero, Neil Armstrong, died on August 25 at the age of 82 as a result of complications from bypass surgery.

On July 21, 1969 the world stopped and watched the astronaut become the first man to step on the Moon with Buzz Aldrin, uttering the immortal phrase: ``That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.''

In a statement his family described him as ``a reluctant hero who always believed he was just doing his job''.

While Kiwis should praise and celebrate each other's heroic acts more, ``a true hero doesn't need to be told'', said Ms Chatwin.

``Make no mistake, quietly, secretly they love the praise and the adulation, but the key component is they do not need it.''

- Rotorua Daily Post

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