After initial publicity, lives of heroes can take nosedive
New York's 'Subway Superman' can take a lesson from Daniel Santos.
NEW YORK (AP) -- Daniel Santos became an instant hero in 1996 when he jumped 130 feet off a bridge into the Hudson River to rescue a young woman trying to commit suicide.
Then came the national TV interviews, the fan mail from strangers, the offers to do commercials, the free trip to Disney World.
Then came the nightmares resulting from his near-death plunge. He returned to work after the Disney World trip only to get harassed about his absence, and quit. He lost his health insurance, the money ran out, and he started drinking heavily.
"My life unraveled. The publicity changed my life. I didn't want it to," said Santos, who still occasionally hears the words "the bridge jumper" from strangers on the street. "I had my 15 minutes of fame and I was yesterday's news. I didn't care, but it took me four or five years to get my life back."
Santos recalled his experience Friday as New York crowned a new hero -- the man who dived in front of a Manhattan subway train Tuesday to save a teenager, one of the city's most amazing acts of bravery in recent memory.
Since then, fame has accompanied subway rescuer Wesley Autrey everywhere he has gone.
The 50-year-old construction worker won accolades such as "the hero of Harlem" and "Subway Superman," appeared on David Letterman and accepted money and other gifts -- including a trip to Disney World. Mayor Michael Bloomberg bestowed him with the city's highest civic award, the Bronze Medallion; past recipients include Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
As Santos can attest, though, there are dangers in becoming an overnight hero in a media-saturated society.
"They go one of two ways: They either recognize that their act was a moment in time they can enjoy temporarily, and the rest of their life is a consequence of everyday routine -- or they get stuck in their deed or action, feel entitled and lose perspective. That's the danger," said Alan Hilfer, chief psychologist at Brooklyn's Maimonides Medical Center.
Joseph Dunwald was only 17 when he did about the same thing as Autrey. He leaped off a Manhattan subway platform to rescue a man who had fainted and fallen onto the tracks.
"Been there, done that," Dunwald, now 81, said.
Dunwald, a retired New York firefighter who lives in Lake Mary, Fla., said the moment and the public attention "changed my persona. It was a new level of responsibility, a prep course for what was about to happen -- ducking German submarines in World War II."
It was, he said, "a great preparation for life" -- a happy, healthy life far from the spotlight.
Autrey has seemed to take his instant celebrity in stride, calling his act the only decent thing to have done.
Rewind a decade.
What Santos said
"When you see somebody in the water like that, hopeless, and you're afraid they're going to drown, you're going to do something to help them so that's what I did," Santos, then a volunteer firefighter, said in the days after his plunge from the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Santos' troubles piled up quickly, however. On top of losing his job, a TV network threatened to sue him, accusing him of not sticking to his "exclusive" interview contract. Everyone wanted him on the air.
"My personality changed," he said.
Santos, now 31, still lives near the bridge, north of New York City. He works as a plumber and is engaged.
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