Vail Daily column: Can we be heroes?
On May 10, a man died approximately 100 feet from my home. I was oblivious to the unfolding tragedy until after the fact. Way after the fact. I only became aware something happened when I went outside to go for a run. I live next to a dam along the Reuss River in Switzerland. This is no Hoover Dam. It is one of more than 500 small dams on rivers all over Switzerland regulating river flows and providing hydroelectric power — the country’s principal source of energy. Between my house and the dam is a boat ramp and parking area. This normally empty area was filled with police cars, an ambulance, divers in wet suits and inflatable rafts. Standing at a distance behind the police tape was a crowd of onlookers. I heard nothing — no screams from witnesses when the man was going under and no sirens when first responders arrived on the scene. At the time I did not know what transpired but it did not look good. I am not a gawker so I did not stick around to watch and wait. I went for my run.
The following day my husband found a small article in the Neue Zuricher Zeitung that indicated a 41-year-old male had capsized in his canoe in front of the dam and gone under. Witnesses say he surfaced several times before disappearing under the water. Hanging on the fence next to the dam is a red and white water preserver but there was likely no time to get to the preserver and throw it to the man. No one jumped in to save him; instead they called the police. That was the best they could do. If the current was strong enough to pull a grown man under, it is more than likely that anyone going in after him would have been pulled under also, as much by the drowning man as the current.
I would have been no help. I would be the first to admit that I am the last person you want in a clutch. The deer-in-headlights look comes naturally to me. Now, I have been in some rather perilous situations where I have snapped out of it and was somewhat useful. But my initial reaction is to freeze.
The river is deceptive. It appears calm with loons, ducks and occasionally even swans gently gliding by. But a closer inspection of the water in front of the dam reveals whirlpools where the water is sucked down beneath the dam before the Reuss continues its meandering journey north where it joins the Aare and eventually flows into the Rhein. The loons actually ride the whirlpools, get their fish and then get out. This is a skill of aquatic fowl, not humans. The day the canoeist drowned, the river was swollen from spring rains and all the sluice gates were open and discharging water. It was as if a giant had flushed a toilet.
This man’s death has stayed with me, but not because of media attention. After the initial newspaper report about the accident there was nothing more released — not the deceased man’s name, occupation or family. In truth, no follow-up story could answer the more troubling questions that bedeviled me about this incident. I wonder why he got so close to the dam. Was he curious or distracted? It is chilling to consider the disastrous consequences of a hasty decision. We all make bad decisions. Even though some are costly in terms of time or resources, most are reversible or amendable. Some, unfortunately, are fatal.
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Even more troubling than questions about why he navigated his canoe up to a dam are the questions I ask myself about how I would react if I saw someone in mortal danger. Literature and film lionize the hero who runs into the burning building to save a child. Ignoring personal jeopardy is a hallmark of heroism. But when our heroic moment arrives will we recognize it and have the capacity to perform? Or will we make matters worse or even need rescuing ourselves? Or, like the onlookers that fateful Sunday morning, will better judgment deny us our opportunity to be heroes, without making us cowards?
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be found online at clairenoble.org or follow her on Twitter @thewriteclaire.