It has been a time of uncommon heroism. Since Sept. 11, the nation’s eyes have been focused on rescue workers at the World Trade Center and those on the front lines fighting the war on terrorism. But in sharing a concern for others, they are not alone. Throughout the year, ordinary people have proved themselves again and again, rushing to the aid of friends, neighbors and even strangers. Some of the heroes were children, like the 11-year-old Boy Scout who risked electrocution to rescue a girl badly burned by a power line in a tree. Others were professionals, including a Seattle air traffic controller and a Red Lion, Pa., elementary school principal, who put their own safety aside to protect those who counted on them. Still others confronted a devastating flood, a lethal tornado, a fiery gas explosion—and leaped in to help when many might have fled. Why? Simply because, say the subjects of the following stories, it was the right thing to do.

AMANDA VALANCE, 14

She snatched a friend from an attacking gator

On Aug. 18, Edna Wilks discovered that Amanda Valance was more than her best friend–she was her guardian angel. The Orlando girls and four other friends decided to take a moonlight dip in Little Lake Conway across from Edna’s home to celebrate having finished their first week as ninth graders at William R. Boone High School. “It’s very safe,” says Edna, 15, “and we’re all good swimmers.”

But as they splashed in the water, something suddenly rose from the 15-foot depths and clamped onto Edna’s left arm. “At first I thought it was someone playing around,” she says. “Then I saw the alligator’s head. I didn’t even have time to scream; he just pulled me under. He started spinning me over and over, and I heard something crack in my body. I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to die like this.’ ” For an instant the gator loosened its grip, and she burst to the surface crying for help. “I saw everyone swimming away,” she recalls. “All the boys were heading for shore. I screamed, ‘Come back, don’t leave me!’ ”

Everyone did—except for Amanda, who swam toward her. “For a second I was like, ‘I gotta get out of here,’ ” says Amanda. “Then I thought, ‘No, I can’t leave my best friend out here to die.’ ” When she reached Edna, the girl’s arm bleeding heavily, Amanda saw the gator surface just a few feet away. With the gator staring, she pushed Edna onto her boogie board and, with her powerful breaststroke, began swimming the 50 yards to shore. The gator began to close in, Amanda says, then submerged. Petrified, she comforted Edna: “I told her, ‘Come on, you can make it.’ I was crying.”

By the time the two reached shore, Edna’s mother, Nancy, was waiting and paramedics were on the way. The gator, an 11-footer, was later found and shot dead by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation officers. Though the reptile had snapped Edna’s upper-arm bone, leaving a foot-long gash, it miraculously missed a major artery. Given another minute, “it would have finished my daughter off,” says Nancy, 42, a homemaker. “Edna would not be alive today if it weren’t for Amanda.” Adds Edna: “She always said that her biggest fear was being attacked by a shark or alligator, yet she still swam to me. She is so brave.”

Amanda—the younger of two daughters of Raejean, 41, a human-resources specialist at Universal Studios theme park, and Brian, 42, an equipment specialist for the local utility company—doesn’t deny it. “I’ve read about people who were courageous and I always hoped I could be like them,” she says. “People come up to me at school and say, ‘Gosh, you’re the gator girl.’ I’m pretty proud.”

KIM PLAISANCE, 23, TUCKER SCIONEAUX, 23, LONNIE CHOUEST, 35

They dove in to free two babies from a car sinking in a bayou

It was 2 o’clock on July 12 in tiny Cut Off, La., and auto repairmen Lonnie Chouest, Tucker Scioneaux and Kim Plaisance were doing the usual—talking about fishing and their love lives. Then they heard a heavy thud and a muffled splash and knew that a car had plunged into Bayou Lafourche across the highway. The pals, all of whom work at Ken’s Body Shop, dashed across the road. When they reached the water, says Scioneaux, “the car was upside down, four tires up.”

The men momentarily relaxed when Stacey Rogers, 21, Opel Lovette, 20, and Joni LeBlanc, 15, emerged from the sinking car, which had hit a hole in the rain-slicked road, flown into the air and struck two trees before landing in the bayou. But relief turned to horror when two of the women began screaming, “Our babies are still in the car!” Rogers’s 8-month-old son Teigen and Lovette’s 3-month-old Mathew were trapped in their infant seats under 12 feet of murky water.

The men, fathers all, kicked off their shoes and dove in. It took several minutes to pry open the doors of the 1998 Kia Sephia. Visibility was so poor that the trio then had to find the babies by feel. Plaisance surfaced and yelled for a knife. Chouest quickly dug one out of his pocket, and Plaisance used it to cut Teigen’s restraining belts. By the time he emerged with the unconscious boy and handed him to Scioneaux, Plaisance recalls, “Both sides of the bayou were filled with worried people.” After several more dives, Chouest was also able to free Mathew. “That little one was dead,” he says. “He was pale as a ghost.”

Thankfully, Chouest was wrong. Both babies had water and oil in their lungs and developed pneumonia, but in five days they were healthy enough to be released from the hospital. Before taking them home, their mothers stopped at Ken’s Body Shop so the boys could meet their saviors. For their heroism, says Scioneaux, “we got awards and stuff like that, but they were nothing next to seeing those babies alive.”

NORINA BENTZEL, 42

A school principal fights off a man attacking kids with a machete

Norina Bentzel almost never calls her children during the day. But around 11:20 a.m. on Feb. 2, the principal of North Hopewell-Winterstown Elementary School in Red Lion, Pa., felt a strong urge to phone her son Joshua, 6. With a babysitter’s help, the youngest of her three kids was getting ready for kindergarten. “I just wanted to tell him I loved him,” says Bentzel.

It could have been the last time. As Bentzel was talking to Joshua, she noticed a balding stranger enter the school. She guessed he was a student’s grandfather. “I walked toward him,” she recalls, “and asked if there was something I could do.” Then the carnage began.

The man, later identified as William Stankewicz, 56, pulled a black object about 2 feet long out of his pants and started swinging at Bentzel. The weapon bruised her shoulder before slashing her right hand. “It felt like a piece of wood,” she says. “I didn’t know it was a machete. And I didn’t know I was hurt.”

When Stankewicz slashed at her stomach, Bentzel barely managed to jump away. “He turned and ran back down the hallway,” she recalls. “I yelled out, ‘Call 911! Lockdown!’ ” She scrambled to her office to press an alarm button that signaled teachers to lock their doors, but she was too late to stop Stankewicz from bursting into a kindergarten classroom filled with 23 students. “The kids were screaming,” says teacher Linda Collier, 53. Stankewicz’s blade sliced one child’s hand and another’s ponytail before Collier stepped up to distract him. “I hollered, ‘What do you think you’re doing? Stop hitting them!’ ” says Collier, who suffered a deep cut to her hand.

The children ran into the principal’s office and the adjacent nurse’s office with Stankewicz in pursuit. As Bentzel herded them in, she found herself again face-to-face with the assailant. His blows fractured her left forearm and nearly severed her pinkie. Then, when Stankewicz turned to confront Collier and school nurse Denise Zellers, the 5’5″ Bentzel leaped on his back. “I yelled, ‘Help me get him down,’ ” she says. “He dropped the machete, and I remember feeling the life draining from him. He slumped over a desk. I said, ‘Calm down, it’s over.’ He said, ‘Arlen Specter made me do this.’ I said, ‘What?’ ”

When paramedics and police arrived 10 minutes later, Bentzel was semiconscious, having lost several pints of blood. After treatment in a nearby hospital she had her left pinkie and ring finger reattached at the Curtis National Hand Center in Baltimore. She learned about her attacker’s strange past at his trial. On Sept. 26 Stankewicz pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder and 16 counts of aggravated assault and was later sentenced to 132 to 264 years in prison. A former schoolteacher with a history of mental problems, he had been divorced in 1995 by his mail-order bride from Kazakhstan. He wanted her deported and served two years in prison for making death threats against federal officials who declined to take action. Seeking revenge against his ex-wife, he traveled to Red Lion—where the couple had once lived—from his home in Johnson City, Tenn. When he couldn’t find her he struck out at the school her two children had attended. As for Senator Specter (R-Pa.), he had played a role in Stankewicz’s paranoid delusions.

Bentzel, who landed her dream job of principal in 1998 after 17 years as a middle school teacher, endures physical therapy five days a week to regain the full use of her hand. The kindergartners, who received crisis counseling, are doing fine. Colleagues weren’t surprised by Bentzel’s heroics. “I liken it to a mother bear protecting her young,” says her secretary, Susan Capp, 45. Adds Bentzel’s husband, Jim, 42, an electrical engineer: “It’s her school, and she looks after the kids. That’s just the way she is.”

ZAC ANDERECK, 18

A tornado made his prom night unforgettable

Hoisington High senior Zac Andereck’s prom was well underway in the Knights of Columbus hall when the lights blinked out. A tornado was roaring through Hoisington, in central Kansas. As revelers ran for the basement, Andereck’s cell phone rang. It was his parents, Dean, 52, and Becky, 47. Their house had collapsed, and they were trapped in the cellar with water pouring in and the smell of gas spreading.

The tux-clad track star sprinted to his dad’s pickup and sped home through driving rain. “I couldn’t recognize my street,” he says. “Everything was gone.” For an hour in pitch darkness, he lifted debris, including a washer and dryer, to free his unharmed parents. “I didn’t used to believe stories about someone picking up a car to save a baby, but now I do,” he says of the strength he summoned. The April 21 tornado leveled half of Hoisington (pop. 2,975). “Material goods can be replaced,” says Andereck, now a freshman at Emporia State University. “What matters is people you love.”

BRIAN SCHIMPF, 41

During a terrifying earthquake in Seattle, an unflappable air-traffic controller kept the skies safe

On the morning of Feb. 28, Brian Schimpf was hard at work atop the control tower of the busy Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. But at 10:54 a.m., as the veteran air-traffic controller was juggling a sky full of 747s and commuter jets, his 600-sq.-ft. operations room began to shudder violently. “Stuff started falling out of the ceiling,” says Schimpf, a suburban Tacoma resident and married father of two young boys. “I was as frightened as I’ve ever been in my life. I really thought I was going to die.” As he would later learn, Seattle was in the grip of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake—a temblor that caused 320 injuries and $2 billion in damage.

At that moment Schimpf was the only one of the tower’s three controllers with planes under his direction. In the midst of falling debris and deafening noise, he issued an urgent transmission: “Attention all aircraft in Seattle. We have a huge earthquake going on. The tower is collapsing. Hang on, everybody.” As steel pillars in the 108-ft. tower snapped and its seven 1,500-lb. windows crashed to the ground, his colleagues dived under their chairs. But Schimpf stayed at his post, choreographing the aircraft on his radar screen with unshakable efficiency. “My supervisor kept yelling at me to get out, but I just couldn’t do that,” he says. “I had a couple more planes to land.”

After 45 seconds the shaking finally stopped, and Schimpf and his colleagues—all of whom had remained in the tower—emerged from the wreckage unhurt. “If I’d been one of those controllers, I would have hightailed it right out,” says airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Mohon, adding that it took $5 million to repair the tower. Luckily for the passengers of half a dozen aircraft, a cool head was in the hot seat.

CARL HAZZARD 28, TEDDY HAZZARD, 32, JOSH ANDRIGO 21

This trio plucked over a dozen neighbors from flooded homes

On most days Elkhorn Creek is a narrow stream that flows placidly through southern West Virginia. But on July 8, after a flash flood dumped six inches of rain on the area in a couple of hours, the creek became a monster. One of the region’s worst floods ever killed six people, displaced thousands and caused $150 million worth of damage. But in the town of Kimball (pop. 550), brothers Carl and Teddy Hazzard and their friend Josh Andrigo fought the Elkhorn for more than a dozen lives—and won.

Carl, who lives above the flood zone in nearby Welch, drove his truck to his parents’ house that morning to find his father, Samuel, 68, clinging to a fence to avoid being swept away in the waist-high water. Samuel had gone to help their neighbor Bernice Hickman, 70, and now Carl joined in. Aided by two other men, the Hazzards got her and her friend Elsie Barksdale, 90, into the truck and out of harm’s way. “Don’t ask how we got up in there,” says Hickman. “But fear will make you do a lot.” Carl dropped the women at his place and returned to Kimball to search for others in trouble.

By then, Teddy’s own mobile home, on the Elkhorn’s banks, had been swept away—just moments after he hustled his wife, Louvinia, 31, sons Theodore, 7, and Andrew, 5, and 4 of their 18 cats into his truck. “There wasn’t any use dwelling on it,” says Teddy, who works with Carl in the family’s hauling business. Instead he joined his brother and pal Josh Andrigo, a security guard. The three borrowed an 18-ft. fishing boat and set off on a rescue mission across the inundated town, dodging live power lines. The team’s first stop was the elder Hazzards’ brick house. But mother Ardelia, 62, settled in on the second floor, insisted on staying put. “We couldn’t feel sorry for ourselves,” she says. “There was so much adversity for others.”

Among them was James Crowder, 64, who had lost one leg to diabetes and was battling cancer. In Crowder’s almost submerged kitchen, his sister Margaret Griffith, 61, placed him on the sink to keep his head above water. They had been there for hours when the trio arrived. Says Debbie Blanchard, 41, whose husband is pastor at the Methodist church where the Crowders were later taken: “If they had been 30 minutes longer in that water, they wouldn’t have made it.”

The same could be said for retired teacher Sammy Serreno, 69. Legally blind, he was stranded in his home with his two Dachshunds, Bandit and Baron. When the Hazzards and Andrigo reached him at 9:30 p.m., Serreno was up to his chest in water and had a dog perched on each shoulder. Across the street, Vivian Ferguson, 88, was in deep too. As the rescuers passed her house, they heard an urgent banging. Forcing the door open, they found Ferguson, who had been using a hammer to signal for help. But Ferguson balked at getting into the boat. “I can’t,” she recalls telling the men. “They said, ‘You have to.’ I know they saved my life.”

On their last trip the trio returned to Ardelia and Samuel’s home. They still refused to leave, so Carl resorted to a lie. “I told them there was another six or seven inches of rain coming,” he says. “They got in.”

Thanks largely to the three men, no one in Kimball drowned that day. Carl, an unmarried father of three, rose early the next morning and cooked Hickman and Barksdale breakfast. When Barksdale opened her purse, Carl told her, “If I had known you would try to pay me, I would have left you in Kimball.” But he was fibbing again. “If I had to do it all again,” he says, “I would.”

NOEL MONTGOMERY, 39

An aerobics teacher goes all out to nab a fleeing thief

Noël Montgomery assumed the man watching the aerobics class she was teaching at a Seattle church on Feb. 1 was waiting for a friend—until he grabbed a student’s wallet and bolted. Montgomery, a single mom and medical-assisting instructor, took off after the thief, chasing him into the busy street. Six blocks later, just as the 140-lb. perp flagged down a bus, his 128-lb. pursuer grabbed him by the collar. “I didn’t think about him having a gun,” she says. “This was about principles.”

She marched captive Trent Paul Farmer, 44, who would get 120 days for the crime, to the closest police station. “It’s not real common for people to walk in with criminals,” she says, “so there was some confusion.” Montgomery, who credits her five-day-a-week workouts for putting her in thief-nabbing shape, then returned to finish her class. Police warned her to leave the heroics to them next time. But student Jackie Martin, who got back her wallet, rewarded her with a hug. “I was amazed,” Martin says. “The girl can run.”

DENNIS LYON, 40

Caught in a violent gas explosion, he put his fiancée’s safety first

The only customers in Decor Party Supplies last Jan. 17, Stacey Forcum and Dennis Lyon of Hutchinson, Kans., were choosing toy rings to be used as part of a decoration during their upcoming wedding. Suddenly a deafening blast ripped apart one end of the building. Dennis tried to shield his fiancée, but he was knocked to the floor, his chest seared by a shard of burning metal, and Stacey was thrown across the room. “I couldn’t feel any pain,” recalls the 32-year-old homemaker. “I thought I had died.”

Dennis, a heavy-equipment operator, was unaware that the explosion had been caused by gas, seeping under the store from a nearby pipeline, but he did know one thing: “We had to get out.” Digging frantically through two feet of rubble, he found Stacey semiconscious and dragged her outside. Minutes later a second explosion engulfed the building in flames. “If it weren’t for Dennis, I would have been lying there when the second one hit,” says Stacey, who suffered minor burns.

Incredibly, no one died in the blasts, which demolished two buildings. After treatment at a local hospital, Stacey and Dennis went ahead with their Valentine’s Day wedding—attended by his two children from a previous marriage (Vanessa, 21, and Krystal, 19) and her three (Shelby, 8, Taylor, 6, and Eric, 4). “We were meant to be together,” says Dennis. “I believe that’s why we made it out okay.” At the altar were three rings from Decor. “She called me from the hospital,” says shop manager Colleen Buggeln. “She was worried because she hadn’t paid for the rings. I told her to forget it; they were only 39 cents.” Eight months later, when Decor held its grand reopening, Stacey and Dennis Lyon were guests of honor.

CHRIS WRIGHT, 12

A seventh grader drags his sick father from a river, then drives him to safety

For Chris Wright and his father, Mike, July 20 had been a perfect summer day: a morning of rabbit hunting followed by a cooling swim. Then, as they splashed in a remote part of the Chowchilla River outside Fresno, Calif., Mike, 38, slipped on a wet rock, smashing his nose. Chris headed to fetch some tissues but ran back when he saw his father lying in the water, shaking violently. “His teeth were clenched; he was foaming at the mouth,” Chris recalls. “I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.”

The 120-lb. seventh grader didn’t waste a second. Grabbing his 185-lb. father under the arms, he dragged him up the steep embankment and into their pickup. With his father fading in and out of consciousness, Chris was going to have to take charge. He hopped into the driver’s seat and drove the Ford Ranger 15 miles to the rural house of his father’s uncle Mike Misko, 54. The day before, Misko had fortuitously given Chris his first driving lesson. “I guess,” says Misko, “I showed him how to drive for a reason.”

Misko called 911, and Wright was diagnosed with epilepsy at a Fresno hospital. “I still can’t believe how brave Chris was and how strong he was,” says Mike, a laid-off manager who lives with wife Rosemary, 41, and sons Stanley, 19, Tony, 15, and Chris in Santee, Calif. Says Chris: “Any kid would have done the same thing. I love my dad.”

CHRIS HANEY, 11

He climbed a tree to save a girl shocked by a power line

Prompted by a dare and a $1 bet with her little cousin, 9-year-old Samantha Edwards scrambled quickly to the top of a neighbor’s 40-ft. pine tree. “But when I started down,” the Lincolnton, N.C., fourth grader recalls of that July afternoon, “I slipped, and my sandal got caught.”

Her plight quickly grew much worse. As neighborhood kids described it, there was a sudden sound like “bees and beetles fighting,” then “a flash of blue,” and “Samantha screaming.” Her playmates looked up to see her dangling upside down by one foot. Samantha had touched a power line in the tree and gotten a 7,200-volt shock.

Before nearby adults realized what was happening, neighbor Chris Haney bolted to the scene and, barefoot and wearing only shorts, shinned up the tree. “I was afraid she was going to fall,” says the Boy Scout. “I didn’t want her to die.” In minutes Haney reached the still-conscious girl and ordered her to grab his neck. “Her leg looked burned,” he says. “She had to hold on with her elbows because her hands were all black.”

Maneuvering his way down through thick branches, Chris, carrying Samantha, made it back to terra firma just as emergency workers arrived. They rushed her to nearby Lincoln Medical Center, where she was listed in critical condition with second- and third-degree burns. She later received skin grafts on her arm, leg and foot but suffered no internal injuries.

Today the local EMS crew still marvels at Chris’s courage. “A lot of folks trained in rescue work couldn’t have done what he did,” says spokesman Josh Wagner. But a chivalrous Chris credits his resilient rescuee. “Samantha is a powerful dude,” he says with a smile. “Well, dude-ette.”

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