Air Force Academy Cadet 3rd Class Garrett O'Hanlon watches lacrosse practice Feb. 19 at the academy practice field in Colorado Springs, Colo. While visiting his sister in New York City, O' Hanlon helped rescue a man who fell onto the subway tracks early Feb. 17. O'Hanlon helps with equipment management for the team. (Carol Lawrence / Colorado Springs Gazette)
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Air Force Academy Cadet Garrett O'Hanlon has had to imagine many times how he might react in a crisis. It's part of preparing the service's future leaders to make good choices in volatile situations.
O'Hanlon, a cadet third class majoring in economics, never really knew how to answer. He hoped he would do the right thing. But, he wondered, does anyone ever really know?
O'Hanlon was put to the test at a New York City subway stop early Feb. 17. He'd come to New York for the first time to celebrate his 22nd birthday with his sister, Agnes. The two were waiting for the train after a late dinner in Little Italy when, he recalled, they heard someone scream.
"We look over and there's a man facedown on the tracks. I look up and there is two minutes left until the arrival of the next train," O'Hanlon said. "Next thing you know … I'm jumping down into the tracks and running toward the man."
He tried to heft the man up. But he was unconscious, about 220 pounds of dead weight. "I'm only 160 pounds. I couldn't lift this guy up by myself."
Two other bystanders jumped in to help. Together, they lifted the man off the tracks.
"The people on the platform, they are grabbing anything they can, our coats, our shirts, grabbing his legs, trying to get [us] on the platform," O'Hanlon said.
He looked at the clock announcing the arrival of the next train: Zero minutes.
The bystanders pulled the man and his three rescuers onto the platform. Seconds later, the train sped by.
Meanwhile, first responders arrived and began working on the still-unresponsive man. He was alive, they said. He was safe.
Later, Agnes told O'Hanlon she thought the train was going to kill all four men. She said she'd been screaming the whole time.
"I couldn't hear her. It just happened so fast," he said. "There was no thinking. All I remember is when I saw that zero … there was only one goal, and that was to get the guy out safely. I wasn't even thinking about the train, which is probably not the smartest thing to do. It wasn't until the next day when I was on the subway I noticed how fast it goes."
Once they finally made their way home, Agnes looped her arm in his, heaved a big sigh of relief, and told him not to ever do that again.
Later, she phoned their dad — a merchant mariner whose patriotism inspired O'Hanlon to pursue a military career in the first place — and recounted the events.
O'Hanlon said he didn't think much about it after that. Until a New York paper wrote about the good deed and hailed the men as heroes.
Back at the Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where O'Hanlon is equipment manager for the lacrosse team, news of the good deed made him a minor celebrity.
O'Hanlon is relieved he reacted the way he did. He hopes he'd make the same choice if faced with another crisis.
But he doesn't think what he did was heroic. "To me, it's human nature."