Everybody at some time has wondered what they would do in the instant they might need to put their life in danger to save another. Lenny Holmwood no longer has to wonder. On that memorable day in May that three Napier policemen went to the house of Jan Molenaar and left under fire, Holmwood was the reason two of them survived.

Molenaar was a mate; Holmwood had bought marijuana from him at times. On the fateful morning, he says, he just called to visit.

The police were there with a search warrant and his friend turned murderous.

The wounded policemen were still in the street. Molenaar meant to finish them off. Holmwood seized the rifle barrel and pushed it away, grappling with the bigger man, pleading with him. He distracted the gunman for perhaps 20 precious seconds, long enough for two of the officers to reach safety.

The third, Len Snee, still lay in the street. So did Holmwood, having taken a bullet from his enraged mate. With Molenaar shooting now from the house, Holmwood crawled to Senior Constable Snee, but there was nothing he could do for the policeman's fatal chest wounds.

When the siege ended after more than 28 hours, attention centred on the dead murderer, his motives and his home arsenal, and on the loss of Mr Snee.

The bravery of Lenny Holmwood was acknowledged by the police, but the man who saved two of them dropped out of sight.

Today, we name him the Herald's New Zealander of the Year.

He is not the sort to seek the limelight. His life might not be exemplary. He lives alone, finds work where he can, gets into some scrapes but usually, he says, because he is putting himself in harm's way, trying to stop them. His actions on Chaucer Rd that day attest to his selfless instinct.

Several other New Zealanders were high in consideration for our annual accolade this time. Hawkes Bay police inspector Mike O'Leary and his son Conor also put themselves in danger to help people in distress.

The O'Learys were driving home from a funeral when a multiple collision occurred in front of them. The van they had been following caught fire and two screaming children were stuck trying to get out a window.

Helped by another man, father and son managed to free the smaller of the two boys but the other one was trapped by his seat belt. Even though his hand was burned, Mike O'Leary then called for a knife and cut through the belt to free the second boy.

Deb Leask was a deserving contender for a different reason. When a real estate agent tried to knock down the price of two townhouses she was selling, to buy the properties himself, she complained to the industry's disciplinary institute. It imposed its maximum fine on the agent's firm, $750.

Not content, she complained to the previous Government's Associate Justice Minister, Clayton Cosgrove, who took up the case with a vengeance that resulted in a tougher body taking over the regulation of real estate this year. For Deb Leask it was the culmination of a four-year battle in which she was "victimised, bullied and vilified".

Two better-known contenders this year were broadcaster Paul Holmes, who responded to his daughter's drug problems by putting his considerable public energy into the fight against P, and anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond, whose popular published work was recognised widely this year.

Some of their contributions to national life cover many years, some of them came on the spur of a moment. Lenny Holmwood did not hesitate, and his next thought was equally selfless. Lying wounded, he sent a memorable text: Jan busted, 3 cops shot. Me leg. Can you feed Scrappy.