Construction worker Wesley Autrey became a national hero in 2007 when he placed his life in danger to help a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks in a New York subway tunnel. After his heroic act, Autrey was asked to appear on talk shows and at public functions, and he became the subject of intense media analysis regarding the psychology of heroism. An inexperienced celebrity, Autrey later became entangled in a web of promoters and legal pitfalls, as he and others attempted to profit from his fame.
Wesley Autrey was born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1956, the son of Robert Autrey Sr. and his wife, Mary. Autrey, his older brother, and two younger sisters spent most of their childhood living on a small farm in Alabama. Robert Autrey, a construction worker, left the family shortly after the birth of Autrey's youngest sister. When Autrey was twelve years old, his mother moved the family to the Harlem neighborhood in New York City, where Autrey attended public schools. At age seventeen he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
While serving in the Navy, Autrey had a son, Wesley Jr. He returned to New York after his service and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He later became a construction worker and a member of Laborer's Union Local 79. Autrey had two more children, daughters Shuqui and Syshe, with another woman whom he never married. Over the years Autrey's extended family grew, and he helped to support his mother, his son's daughters, and his sister Lucile's three sons.
On January 2, 2007, Autrey was waiting for a downtown local train at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan at around 12:45 p.m., with his two daughters in tow. Shortly after entering the turnstile, Autrey saw Cameron Hollopeter, a twenty-year-old student at the New York Film Academy, fall on his back on the platform. Autrey and two other bystanders helped to raise Hollopeter to his feet, using their legs as a makeshift chair to prop him to his feet. After a few minutes, Autrey and the other bystanders thought that Hollopeter had recovered from his seizure, and they allowed him to walk away.
A few seconds later, however, Hollopeter stumbled over the edge of the platform and fell onto the subway tracks, his body lying largely in the drainage trough between the two rails. "I had to make a split decision," Autrey explained to Cara Buckley in the New York Times. As the train approached, Autrey could see that as Hollopeter flailed his arms and legs, he was in danger of having his limbs removed or of being killed as the train passed over him. According to Autrey in an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, he recalled thinking, "Fool, you got to go in and help him."
Autrey leaped on top of Hollopeter and brought his arms and legs under control, pulling as deeply into the trough as possible. Five cars passed over Autrey and Hollopeter before the train stopped. The clearance in the trough was approximately twenty-one inches, which allowed enough space that neither man was injured, but the passing train cars left grease marks on Autrey's hat.
Once the train came to a halt, Autrey still had two problems. One was that the disoriented Hollopeter was seeking to get out from under him, and the other was that it would take time for the Metropolitan Transit Authority to shut off the power to the third rail and to remove the trains from overhead so that Autrey and Hollopeter could be lifted to safety. Autrey recalled having to scream from under the trains to bystanders on the platform to make sure that his daughters were safe and to reassure them that he had not been hurt. When onlookers realized he was unharmed, he recalled in a New York Times interview, he heard applause and cheers coming from the platform. Autrey said in later interviews that he was afraid that one of his daughters might try to follow him onto the tracks. Meanwhile, Autrey attempted to speak calmly to Hollopeter, reassuring him that he was safe and asking him not to struggle until they could be extracted.
Recognized as a Hero
Upon his emergence from the station, Autrey was surrounded by media vying to be the first to speak to him. Though he received accolades from the gathered crowd, he initially thought that the incident was over. It was not until later in the week that he realized his decision to help Hollopeter would make him a national hero.
He and Hollopeter were taken to St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, where Autrey refused treatment but waited to visit Hollopeter before leaving to go to work. "I don't feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help," Autrey told Buckley. The next day, as Autrey walked to his mother's apartment in Harlem, a stranger approached him and gave him a $10 bill. Autrey recalled this as his first hint that his life was about to change in many significant ways. He spent the next several days conducting interviews with television and print news services, and receiving calls to appear in interviews on television programs such as Charlie Rose, Ellen DeGeneres, Late Night with David Letterman, and Oprah.
With his sister Linda helping to field offers from various television and media outlets, Autrey soon found that he needed to take a leave of absence from work simply to meet the demands of those who wanted to speak with him about his heroic acts. He returned to the hospital to visit Hollopeter a couple of days later and was joined by the media. After speaking privately to Hollopeter, Autrey and Larry Hollopeter, the young man's father, met with the media, where Hollopeter gave a short, sincere speech thanking Autrey for saving his son. Calling Autrey's act "instinctive and unselfish," Hollopeter said, "There are no words to properly express our gratitude and feelings for his actions."
"People wanted to hug me, they wanted to kiss me," Autrey said to Robert Kolker in an April 2007 interview in New York Magazine. "It was an honor and a privilege to save a man's life." Autrey recounted the story dozens of times over the next few weeks and was taken to the subway where he reenacted the event for the media. In addition to attention, Autrey also received gifts, including $10,000 from Donald Trump, who wrote a short piece about Autrey in Time magazine's feature on the 100 most inspiring people of the year, and $5,000 from the president of the New York Film Academy, where Hollopeter was a student. The MTA gave Autrey and his family a year's worth of free subway passes to show their appreciation.
Autrey reported later that he received numerous offers from philanthropic organizations in the form of cash, vacations, and even scholarships for his daughters. Autrey's appearance on the Ellen DeGeneres show was at the height of his instant fame. His daughters were given tours of Disneyland and Universal Studios, and on the show Autrey was treated to a satellite meeting with R&B superstar Beyoncé, who commended him on his bravery. Autrey was promised a 2007 Jeep Patriot, and Chrysler gave him use of a Sebring until the new car could be delivered. The New Jersey Nets also gave Autrey season tickets to their games, and in February he was taken by jet to be an honored guest at the Super Bowl in Miami. He was a hit in interviews, and each host he visited echoed the same admiring sentiments, as representatives of a nation captivated and inspired by his selfless heroism.
At a Glance …
Born in 1956 in Pensacola, FL; son of Robert Autrey Sr. and Mary Autrey; children: Wesley Jr., Shuqui, Syshe. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1974-77. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Christian.
Career: U.S. Postal Service; construction worker.
Memberships: Laborers' International Union of North America.
Awards: Bronze Medallion, City of New York, 2007.
Addresses: Home—New York, NY.
Accolades did not only come from the media but also from political figures who soon began using Autrey as an example of the hidden heroism that should serve as an inspiration to all Americans. Autrey was invited to the State of the Union address, where he met President George W. Bush and posed for pictures. He was also honored by New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who proposed a Senate motion to commend him for his actions. Autrey was also invited to a meeting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, where he received the Bronze Medallion, the highest honor given by New York City to citizens. Previous winners of the medallion include Douglas MacArthur and Martin Luther King Jr.
Experienced the Negative Side of Fame
When word of Autrey's monetary gifts began to spread, he soon experienced a negative side to his instant fame. In his Harlem neighborhood, people on the street stopped him for pictures, and some began asking for donations. Autrey's obligations over the first few months after the event prevented him from returning to work and threatened the family's financial stability. "It's scary. I'm not used to this constant fame," Autrey said to Kolker in New York Magazine. "I have people pushing me straight in front of a podium with a thousand eyes on me. Everybody's looking at you and wondering, What is he gonna say?"
Within a few weeks, Autrey had heard from his father for the first time in nearly thirty years, but was disappointed when it seemed that he too wanted money. Because he had acquired money and other gifts, Autrey hired a lawyer, James McCollum, and an accountant, Robert Davis, to help him figure out how to use his money and handle the demands on his time and finances. Autrey soon came to believe, however, that he needed an advisory team that was familiar with the New York area. He was approached by Mark Anthony Esposito, a man with an unusual past who represented himself as someone who could help Autrey profit from his unique story, including a potential film and book project. Esposito's partner, Diane Kleiman, was a former prosecutor for the Queens area who marketed herself to Autrey as a lawyer.
Esposito and Kleiman convinced Autrey to sign a contract that Autrey later said he poorly understood. The contract was a partnership agreement guaranteeing Autrey 50 percent of any profits derived from the use of his name, story, and reputation. The other 50 percent was to be shared among the partners, including Esposito and Kleiman. Esposito further took the initiative to apply for a trademark for some of the nicknames given to Autrey in the media, including "Subway Hero." Soon Esposito and Kleiman's behavior began to trouble Autrey and his sister Linda, who was still acting as his press liaison. According to Linda, speaking to Kolker, Esposito chastised her for handling media relations without first clearing it with him. Autrey eventually fired Esposito and Kleiman, but according to Autrey, Esposito refused to let him out of his contract and threatened to take his portion of any profit Autrey derived from his reputation. In addition, Autrey claimed, Esposito told him that he still planned to exploit the story for monetary gain without Autrey's cooperation. In March, Autrey and his sister filed papers to sue Esposito and Kleiman for defamation of character to release Autrey from the terms of the partnership agreement.
Kolker met with Esposito and Kleiman while preparing his April 16, 2007, story about Autrey, and he reported that the pair attempted to force him to pay a fee before he would be allowed access to Autrey. Kolker later interviewed Autrey and also interviewed Esposito and Kleiman, who were unapologetic for their behavior and claimed that they were attempting to act in Autrey's best interest. That same month, Kleiman sued Autrey for damaging her reputation. "They're making me look like a shyster," Kleiman said to Dareh Gregorian in the New York Post. "I'm not a shyster. I'm not money hungry. This is not who I am." In an interview in the New York Daily News, Kleiman further criticized Autrey, saying, "Some people call it heroic, but in some sense, it is stupid. Quite frankly, he should have been more worried about his little kids."
An instant celebrity in January of 2007, by April of that year Autrey was involved in a series of contentious legal suits in an attempt to extricate himself from an unfavorable contract. As time passed, though many remembered the story of Autrey's heroism, he was no longer in the public eye. He reflected on his experiences on the first anniversary of the subway rescue, telling Karen Matthews in an interview on ABCNews.com, "The only thing that I can say is that it was a very costly learning experience for me as far as trusting people." His daily life had not changed significantly; as he explained to Jina Moore in the Christian Science Monitor, "I still make a living with these two hands." To some, however, including Hollopeter and his family, Autrey's heroism left a long and lasting impression.
Christian Science Monitor, January 7, 2008.
The Humanist, March-April 2007, p. 47.
Jet, January 22, 2007, p. 4.
New York Daily News, March 28, 2007.
New York Magazine, April 16, 2007.
New York Post, April 30, 2007.
New York Sun, March 27, 2007.
New York Times, January 3, 2007; January 4, 2007; January 5, 2007; March 27, 2007.
People, January 22, 2007, p. 66.
Time, April 27, 2007.
Washington Post, January 5, 2007; January 8, 2007.
Caparros, Riza, "Navy Veteran Honored at Sunset Parade," U.S. Navy, May 29, 2007, http://www.news.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=29707 (accessed May 22, 2008).
Mathews, Karen, "NY Subway Hero Marks 1 Year in Spotlight," ABCNews.com, January 1, 2008, http://abcnews.go.com/US/WireStory?id=4072879&page=1 (accessed May 22, 2008).
—Micah L. Issitt
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