Risky business: Getting involved

MAX memorial1

Bouquets accumulate at a May 28 memorial event for the three men who were killed or wounded after coming to the aid of two teenage girls on the MAX light-rail train.

By Eric A. Wilcox

A person’s life can change in a split second, based on an inconsequential decision or action, the butterfly effect.  We all make decisions every day and yet we never know which one could be or will be life-changing.

It was a slow afternoon at work on Friday, May 19.  I decided to take off a little early to go to the gym and get a workout in.  It would be quiet at the gym as well. I could exercise and then meet my wife, Sue, for dinner.  I belong to the LA Fitness club at the Lloyd Center, so I slipped out the office side door and caught the usual Blue Line train.

“He’s got a knife!”

It was the first thing I heard getting off the train at the Lloyd Center stop.  Looking up, I saw a girl running down the north platform, a man chasing her with a knife in his left hand.  When she stumbled, he caught up and with sudden viciousness, jammed a knife in her back.

Holy shit, did I just see what I just saw?

The man stood up, turned, crossed the track, climbed over the low barrier and started toward the train I was getting off.  He paused for several seconds, his back to me, just a few feet away.  I thought, what should I do?  He just stabbed a girl, is he going to stab others?  Is he getting away?  He’s smaller than me, I could probably take him. Should I try? I could jump him right now. I need to do something.

Then he turned and faced me, still holding the knife, but now the knife was in his right hand.  I don’t remember him switching hands.  I decided that jumping him was probably not a good idea.  We stood there facing each other for a second or two, then he turned and started walking west down the platform.

Not really thinking, I followed closely behind.  The platform was fairly crowded that afternoon with commuters and students. There were still people in his path getting off the train or waiting to get on.  I started yelling, “He has a knife and he just stabbed a girl!” over and over. All the way down the platform we went, him looking to get on the train or just get away, me following closely behind and yelling.

At the end of the platform, the situation changed.

He turned and faced me again, knife still in his right hand.  We were maybe five feet apart.  We stood there for a few seconds. Then he decided to come after me.

He moved forward, I backed up, he kept coming, I backpedaled focused only on the knife: a folding pocket knife with a wide, four-inch-long blade, blue handle, gripped tightly in his hand and pointing at my stomach.  He was now chasing me. Back up the platform we went.  I backpedaled as fast as I could. I couldn’t turn my back to him. I was focused on the knife.

That’s when I thought, “This is going to hurt.”

After backpedaling the length of the platform, I hit hard against a platform shelter column. I was stuck, he had me.  We faced each other, the knife menacingly waving back and forth a few feet away.  He turned again and started back down the platform.  Now, I was pissed.  I again started to follow, still yelling warnings.  I didn’t want him to get away.

We continued to the end of the platform.  Across the street and up the next block, where we ran into two police officers responding to the 911 calls that others had apparently made.  They cornered him against a wall and demanded that he get on the ground.  He refused and just stood there, insisting “I didn’t do anything.”  After a stand-off for a minute or so, he was taken into custody.

He didn’t do anything?

I walked back to the platform to collect my backpack that I had dropped when I hit the column.  Then I checked on the girl. She was lying on a bench and getting a lot of first aid.  She appeared young and in shock, her back was bleeding, and a pool of blood was forming in the sidewalk below.

More police and paramedics arrived and things quickly calmed down.  I gave my statement to one police officer.  He said it sounded like I was a victim as well.  This hadn’t occurred to me, I considered myself to be an involved bystander.  He asked if I was afraid for my life? Risking my life never occurred to me.  I did say I was afraid of getting stabbed.

After the interview, I called Sue to tell her I was running late.  I decided to skip the workout and go get a beer or two.

***

A week later, on Friday, May 26, at 4:45 p.m., I testified before a grand jury about my case, what I saw and what I did.  It took about five minutes to tell my story.  After a week’s reflection, it really didn’t seem like I did that much, and I could have or should have done more.

Meanwhile, at the same time on the same train at the next stop, three men decided to step in to defend two girls who were being harassed by another passenger.  They didn’t have to. They could have just sat there like most of the other passengers and tried to ignore the situation.  But they chose to get involved, and for that brief life-changing decision, one was seriously wounded and two were brutally stabbed to death.  I am sure that they didn’t anticipate this result when they made their decision.  They were helping someone in need, something we all should be willing to do.

MAX memorial2

Candle holders bear the likeness of two MAX stabbing victims.

Now in a somewhat anonymous way I have something in common with these men.  Each day I walk by the makeshift memorial at the 42nd Street Station stop.  The events of that day are a constant reminder for me that we live not in a violent and uncaring world, but a world full of hope and support.  I try to pause a moment to reflect on their courage and sacrifice.  I remind myself to try to more compassionate, thoughtful, and involved.  To be a better person.

These men didn’t have to do what they did, but they stepped up to do the right thing.  The question now from me is:  In the same situation what would I do?

I hope and pray that I would do the same.

MAX memorial3

A simple message left at the Hollywood Transit Center in Northeast Portland.

Photographs: Eric Wilcox

***

Eric Wilcox, a longtime family friend and breakfast buddy of George, is an architect living in Northeast Portland with wife Sue.

Editor’s note: I’ve known Eric for almost 30 years, ever since our youngest children were infants. Never have I been prouder to be his friend than now. Given the choice between cowardice and courage, I’m not sure many people would have intervened as he did in the situation he described. Knowing Eric as a man of integrity, I’m not surprised he did.

Tomorrow: Jennifer Brennock, Bad news

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12 thoughts on “Risky business: Getting involved

  1. Whew!
    Eric, this was a situation that I never think of happening to someone I know, it would always be a news item involving people I don’t know and not in my neighborhood.. Things could so easily have not turned out well for you. As I read this, I was imagining myself in a terrifying dream in which I was being pursued.
    As George said, I’m proud of you and very thankful you were not physically harmed.

  2. Wow, what an incredible story! I often wonder what I would do if faced with that kind of situation. I’m not sure I would be so brave. I’m glad you’re ok.

  3. Eric, Many of us wonder what we would do in a similar situation. Everyone likes to think that they would help if they could. You did more than that. You risked your life to help a stranger. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” You’re a member of an unusual club: Humans who have accomplished something extraordinary in the service of mankind. Congratulations! Your fellow humans are proud of you.

  4. Amazing. The thing that gets me is how fast things move in a situation like this. In an instant, two men are dead after making a choice to step in to help someone out. In your situation, the results were different, but the potential consequence was the same. Just an instant’s difference between the two. Thanks for standing up for what’s right.

  5. Wow. All I can say is I’m honored to even be in the orbit of someone who could do this and live to tell the tale. It’s impressive that you were so courageous, but I’m really glad that you didn’t get hurt.
    I thought I would be too afraid to take the Max ever again, but a couple of weeks ago I boarded the train on the Westside early one Sat morning. There were actually two hijab-clad women also waiting. I took my bike in and in the distance I could see a guy clearly not rational talking to himself, swinging from the railings – crazy stuff. I think he was harmless though, and he got off downtown. I biked along the river and rode the train back. What else can you do. We all get back on the horse, as it were, because of those heroes who gave up their lives and people like you.

  6. Eric, I am so very sorry this horrific event occurred to you. I can’t imagine how terrifying this must have been. I’m not sure I would have stopped at “a couple” of beers. I can only imagine your terror in learning what you nearly missed. Thank you for stepping up and doing the right thing. I am grateful for humans like you. Peace to you and Sue.

  7. I’m so thankful for you. You say, “I hope and pray that I would do the same.” I think you’re one of the few people who can confidently, without doubt, say you would. You did-ish! Thank you. And thanks for choosing to write something that only you could write. I’m sorry you were in a given place at a given time, becoming a member of a club no one wants to be in.

  8. I re-read your piece to find how your experience impacted you. (I didn’t catch it in my first reading.) I then saw what I was looking for, tucked away in this single sentence: “The events of that day are a constant reminder for me that we live not in a violent and uncaring world, but a world full of hope and support.” What an amazing and unlikely statement.

  9. That is incredible, Eric! I hadn’t heard there was yet another stabbing that day. How tragic. It’s amazing you did what you did. I’m so glad your story turned out differently. Thanks for stepping up and doing what you could safely do. It must have been very frightening and you had the guts to do the right thing.

  10. I think you have already proved what you would do in the same situation. Thank you for being one of the few who steps in when it would be so much easier to stay back. We need more of you.

  11. Eric I have read and reread this piece over the last few weeks and I am so astounded ….Your writing ability makes me feel both the speed and slowness of such horrific events. Your immediate response and reactions makes me believe in the best of humanity. Thank you!

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