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Carnegie honors Sept. 11 heroes en masse

Wednesday, December 26, 2001

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Andrew Carnegie could not have foreseen the day when terror would rain from the skies over New York, Virginia and rural Pennsylvania. But the heroism that followed wouldn't have surprised the Pittsburgh industrialist.

The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, Downtown, this year honored 112 people who risked or lost their lives trying to save others from house fires, automobile accidents, even a raging, 2,200-pound bull.

However, commission officials said they may never be able to single out for recognition some of the most heralded heroes of this age -- men and women who acted valiantly amid the smoke, fire and fear of Sept. 11.

"We frankly have our limitations," said Walter F. Rutkowski, the commission's executive director.

Faced with the difficulty of verifying individual accounts of heroism, the sheer number of potential heroes and the fear of overlooking any deserving person, the commission adopted a resolution Oct. 4 honoring as a group those "who gave of themselves in behalf of others and especially those whose response was their last."

The resolution is posted on the commission's Web site at It recognizes police officers, firefighters and volunteer rescuers; people who delayed their escape from the World Trade Center to help others; and the passengers of United Flight 93, who are believed to have fought to retake their hijacked plane over Western Pennsylvania "and thereby limited the loss of life to their own."

The commission allocated $100,000 for aid to the victims' families. Rutkowski said the money has not yet been disbursed and may go to a charitable foundation serving the families rather than to the families directly.

In typical cases, the commission honors heroes with the bronze Carnegie Medal and $3,500. If a person becomes injured or disabled while performing a heroic act, the commission may award continuing benefits. If a person dies during the heroic act, family members are eligible for financial benefits.

Since it was established in 1904, the commission has awarded more than $25 million to about 8,500 medal recipients and their dependents in the United States and Canada.

Tom Butler, spokesman for Uniformed Firefighters Association Local 94 in New York, said the commission is "very much on target" with the resolution honoring Sept. 11 heroes en masse. He said his union and a fellow union representing higher-ranking fire department officers together lost 343 members at the World Trade Center.

"We don't look for recognition," Butler said. "We do the job because somebody needs help."

Butler said he saw many "unheralded heroes" Sept. 11, including two guys who rushed an injured person to a hospital in the back of a sport utility vehicle. In the weeks and months after the disaster, he said, volunteers have offered to mow widows' lawns and clear their stoops of snow.

So far, a handful of people have contacted the commission to recommend the Carnegie Medal for individuals believed to have acted heroically Sept. 11.

The nominations -- fewer than a dozen, Rutkowski said -- have not been assigned to the case investigators who prepare reports for the commission's review. However, neither Rutkowski nor the commission's new president, Mark Laskow, would rule out the possibility of honoring individuals at some point.

"The book is not closed yet," Rutkowski said.

Carnegie, the steel industry magnate, marveled at how in times of crisis some people displayed nerves of steel. He established the commission with a $5 million gift after a miner and a mining engineer died in 1904 trying to rescue victims of an explosion at the Harwick coal mine in Springdale.

"We live in a heroic age," Carnegie said in one of the commission's charter documents.

Commission staffers see the truth of his words every day.

Laskow, 54, of Squirrel Hill, a member of the commission since 1993 who this month was elected the group's seventh president, said he loves stories "about real people" and is humbled by the accounts investigators present to the board.

He cited the case of David J. Buchmeier of Cheyenne, Wyo., one of 24 individuals the commission honored Dec. 20 in its fifth and final round of awards for the year.

Hearing an explosion the night of April 23, 2000, the 34-year-old Buchmeier grabbed a flashlight and rushed outside, where he found a 1-year-old girl trapped in the fiery rubble of a home leveled by natural gas. Guided by the flashlight, Buchmeier crawled into a hole and rescued the girl, named Destiny.

The commission is the only group to honor valor in a systematic way, using clipping services to learn of brave acts in distant parts of the country, said Laskow, chief executive officer of Greycourt & Co., a financial adviser.

To verify cases of heroism, investigators interview victims, witnesses and emergency workers. Often, in accounts of car accidents and near drownings, heroic acts can be corroborated with little difficulty.

But in the chaos of a mass disaster like the terrorist attacks, it may be impossible to verify individual accounts of heroism to the commission's standards. "You know, the commission is not omniscient," and it would be difficult to rely on family members' statements that loved ones "would" have acted in a certain way, Rutkowski said.

Not everyone who acted bravely Sept. 11 would meet the commission's definition of a hero. The Carnegie Medal primarily recognizes those who act without a duty to do so -- one stranger pulling another from a burning car, for example.

In other cases, like when a parent saves his child or a professional like a firefighter rescues somebody on the job, the commission has a higher standard for heroism. The decision, Laskow said, would be based on whether an individual went above and beyond what duty required.

Lyz Glick, whose husband Jeremy called from Flight 93 and told her about the plan to retake the plane, said she is satisfied with the commission's resolution honoring the Sept. 11 heroes as a group.

She said she objected to the idea of awarding the nation's Medal of Freedom to her husband and other men who made cell phone calls in which they revealed the plan to confront the hijackers. Because it's impossible to know how many people joined in the assault, she said, all on the plane should be recognized.

Likewise, the commission said it would be difficult to identify and honor every deserving person at a time when New York is being called the "city of heroes."

"The Lord only knows how many civilian rescuers died, let alone acted without dying," Rutkowski said.

The nation's new focus on heroism may help to raise the profile of the commission, which Laskow said is not as widely known as it should be. He said he will use his term as president to remind people that it's as important to help others today as in Carnegie's time -- and to thank those who show courage when it matters most.

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