By Stephen M. Silverman
December 05, 2002 11:00 AM

“I wish we’d been warned to wear waterproof mascara,” said CNN’s Daryn Kagan, one of the presenters at Thursday’s often-tearful PEOPLE lunch to celebrate the “Heroes Among Us” — those “ordinary people who stepped on a higher plane” by doing extraordinary things, as the magazine’s managing editor, Martha Nelson, described them.

Michael J. Fox, tennis star Serena Williams, Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin, the stars of NBC’s Third Watch and others convened in the New York Public Library Thursday to honor seven individuals, couples and groups — all of whose accomplishments on behalf of others have been chronicled in the pages of PEOPLE this year.

As the day’s first presenter, Fox — a hero in his own right who first turned to the pages of PEOPLE in 1997 to reveal that he was battling Parkinson’s disease — introduced Vietnam veteran Larry Hicks. Last April, while resting at home recovering from his treatment for cancer of the nose and larynx, the retired Marine sergeant, 52, witnessed an Air-Cam plane crash into a nearby lake.

Hicks immediately drove his boat to the crash site and, after two dives, discovered NASCAR mogul Jack Roush in the pilot seat and managed to revive him with CPR.

“Forget the cancer, forget the chemotherapy, forget the fuel-surfaced water,” said Fox, 41. “He plunged into the water, twice inhaling jet fuel, and unlocked the seatbelt of the pilot.”

Tennis champ Williams, 21, presented celebrated New York City Ballet veteran Jacques d’Amboise, 67, and his proteges, a young group of inner-city school kids from his nonprofit National Dance Institute. Since 1977, some one million students have opted to dance with d’Amboise after school instead of getting into trouble.

Also honored:

• Leslie Hawke, 51, the mother of actor Ethan Hawke, who moved to Romania as a Peace Corps volunteer and opened a chapter of Ready, Willing & Able, a Manhattan-based public-service organization. Her goal: to get beggar children off the streets.

•Bob and Gay Smither, who rose from the unspeakable pain of losing a daughter, Laura — who was kidnapped and killed — to establish the Laura Recovery Center Foundation, which has provided assistance to families in 446 missing-persons cases and played part in locating three kidnapped children.

•Former patrolwoman Julia Mae Burney, who opened the Cops ‘n’ Kids Reading Center in inner-city Racine, Wis., five years ago after she began distributing children’s books from her squad car.

•The Dragon Slayers, a team of seven high school girls who provide the only 24-hour medical care available in frozen Aniak, Alaska (pop. 3,000). The group reaches its patients via snowmobiles and, when it’s a tad warmer, 4-wheel SUVs.

• Eleven-year-old poet Mattie Stepanek, whose two poetry collections, “Heartsongs” and “Journey Through Heartsongs,” have together sold 500,000 copies. Mattie, however, could not make the ceremony. He was home in Maryland, barely able to breathe, because he suffers from a life-threatening illness, dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy.