NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — He did something that not many of us could imagine. In the blink of an eye, this Harlem man jumped to the subway tracks to save a stranger.
And five years later, Wesley Autrey is still being hailed for his courage.
Everywhere he goes, everybody still loves him.
“He will always be the subway hero!” one person told CBS 2’s Maurice Dubois.
Dubois recently sat down with Autrey to find out how the fame has treated the man:
Dubois: “You’ve had five years to think about it, would you do it again?”
Five years ago, what started as a routine trip with his two little girls, suddenly turned into the most daring, death-defying rescue you could imagine, as the Harlem construction worker, then 51, rushed to help a stranger having a seizure on the 137th Street platform.
Next thing Autrey knew, 20-year-old Cameron Hollopeter staggered across the platform and fell onto the tracks. Autrey left his girls with two strangers, and jumped down after another.
The downtown “1” train was rumbling into the station.
“The driver hit the horn so I knew from that sound we wasn’t going to make it,” Autrey said.
So Autrey tackled the man into murky, filthy water. He stayed on top of his back. Crouching down in a space all of 21 inches deep, from the ground to the bottom of the train, it barreled over them, with less than an inch to spare.
“And when the train came to a stop he was beginning to freak out, so I knocked his arm down. I yelled up and said firefighter, police, and this guy is grabbing stuff underneath the train. I just saved his life. We laying in water. I’m not trying to get electrocuted, what do I do? I was like you pinned him down once you can pin him down again,” Autrey said.
Dubois: “So, are people yelling?”
Autrey: “Yes, yes. Everybody started to freak so I yelled from underneath the train saying ‘excuse me everybody, be quiet, I am the father. Please let my girls know that I am OK’ and everybody started clapping.”
Dubois: “So they can hear you?”
Autrey: “Yes. I said ‘everybody be quiet’ because it was so noisy, you know, but when they heard from under there it got completely silent.
Dubois: “And then they started clapping?”
Autrey: “Yes, they all started clapping and I said ‘I’m OK and the man is OK.’”
Approximately 40 minutes went by before rescuers got them out.
“Well, the kid, he was getting a little tight and I said ‘we are underneath a train.’ He said, ‘are we dead? Are we in heaven?’ I said ‘no.’ He kept asking if we dead, if we in heaven, like so many times, that I gave him a pinch and said ‘dude, you’re very much alive!’” Autrey said.
In the whirlwind that followed the subway hero got the city’s rare bronze medal.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg hugged him.
“He said ‘it’s good to have a person like you in this city who is caring and giving,’” Autrey said.
Autrey was invited to the state of the union address.
Dubois: “What did the president say to you?”
Autrey: “He asked me, ‘what was on your mind that day?’ And we had a nice laugh about it. And by the way, Bush, you got jokes!”
Autrey admitted he was nervous on the “Late Show” with David Letterman.
“He leaded over he said something very profound, very plain: ‘you were scared of the audience but you weren’t of a 32-ton train?!” Autrey said.
Plus, Autrey got a new car, Super Bowl tickets and computers for his daughters. Also, his girls’ college expenses have been paid for. He said he’s heard from almost everyone he could imagine.
“Subway! You need to holler at me. We need to create a new sandwich. I need to endorse a new sandwich for you,” Autrey said. “We are gonna cross the Brooklyn Bridge and we goin’ to City Hall.”
These days, Autrey is a sought-after speaker. He still works in construction and is still raising his girls, who are now 11 and 9.
His dream is to get a book deal, even a movie, but mostly, this Navy veteran, who grew up in Alabama and has called Harlem home for three decades, said he was grateful for the chance to help his fellow man.
“You know, I’m glad I did what I did and I wouldn’t change that day. I wouldn’t change me. I’m still always about helping people. I could’ve taken this to a whole different level and became an actor or singer or something, but I think God has a calling for me,” Autrey said.
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