STORIES OF COURAGE & BRAVERY IN ALASKA'S RUGGED COPPER RIVER VALLEY

State Of Emergency: Copper Valley People Stepped Up To Help In Everyday Crises


A Motorist Rushes To Help A Burning Car Out On The Glenn Highway, Miles From Any Town.

U.S. Law Doesn't Mandate A "Duty To Rescue"

...But Try Telling That To An Alaskan

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Heroism is highly regarded in the United States. TV news anchors just can’t get enough of it when they see someone saving a kitten, or risking their lives by pulling a stranded woman (or even a horse) from a raging river during a major flood. Saving others is a point of cultural pride. Americans like to feel that helping others who are in need is one of the great tenets of American life; a moral stronghold of our culture. Something that all Americans are legally obligated to do when they see a fellow citizen in trouble.

This isn’t so. As a rule, rescuing strangers, pets, children and damsels in distress is, in the United States of America, totally optional.

Americans are not legally obligated to help strangers. Even (as the law textbooks like to point out) somebody who is very easy to save. For example, someone drowning face down in a mud puddle, who only requires you -- the passerby -- to turn him over. Under United States law, in almost every state, you have absolutely no legal obligation to use the toe of your boot to flip over a random, drowning baby and save her life.

Only two states -- Vermont and Minnesota -- have laws that say it is your obligation to try to help somebody you randomly come across who is in need.

This attitude is a far cry from Argentina. Unlike America, an Argentinian bystander who fails to try to save someone in trouble faces up to 6 years in prison for “abandoning to their fate a person unable to cope alone who must be cared for...”  (Wikipedia, Duty to Rescue.)

People in Argentina and over 20 other countries, ranging from Brazil to Finland, France, Poland and Portugal, are legally required, as citizens, to help others who are in danger. With only one caveat -- you are protected from the need to rescue if helping somebody else would put you, the rescuer, in harm’s way.


Good Samaritans

When somebody stumbles across a person in trouble and rescues him, they are frequently called “Good Samaritans.” 

Like so many concepts in our western culture, this idea stems from the Bible. And, in many ways, it highlights the grim reality of heroism: it’s very hard to find a “good” hero.

In the Bible (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus is asked how to define your “neighbor,” after he says you should “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells a story of a man who was stripped, beaten and left behind by robbers. Three people come across him; one is a priest, and the other a Levite (in other words, both were high status, and acceptable people.) Yet, they both ignored the victim. The final person to come across the wounded man was a Samaritan.

Today, “Samaritan” is synonymous with the words “good” and “helpful.” Today, “Samaritan” is a positive term. In fact, it’s so positive that many visitors to Alaska travel the state, looking for camper parks who advertise their reliability because they’re members of the “Good Sam Club.”

But, for the Jews of Jesus’ time, Samaritans were a despised minority; and when Jesus is quoted as saying that a Samaritan (of all people) was “good,” he was being provocative and daring.

That a Samaritan was the one to bandage up the victim’s wounds, rescue him, and pay for his care, was throwing fat in the fire. It was a challenging, in-your-face, unlikely thing to say. Placing a Samaritan in the story gave a view of the world that was unexpected. For the average Jew there was nobody more hateful or despised than a Samaritan. If Jesus had been a prophet in India, it would have been like saying the “Good Untouchable” was your neighbor and rescuer. And what do you think about that?!


The people of the Copper Valley of Alaska were like the original Samaritan. Sometimes considered unsavory characters, but rescuers nevertheless. And, the idea that Copper Valley people were somehow made “good” by rescuing others wasn’t something even local people thought, or bought into. You rescued others because that's what you did. Not because you were angling for brownie points.


Dangerous Rescues

It’s easy to get into harm’s way.  Saving people is dangerous. Invariably, it places the rescuer into the very same desperate and lethal difficulty as the rescued.

The Carnegie Awards for bravery are given four times a year to people from all over the United States.

Usually, the winner of a Carnegie award is a man. And the random locations where the rescues occur are usually small towns; parts of America whose problems -- icy lakes, burning buildings, and long roads -- mirror, on  a lesser scale, those of the Copper River Valley. Carnegie Award winners tend to come from desolate places like Crete, Nebraska, Auburn, Maine, and Lake Norden, South Dakota...

--Not from places full of EMT's, ambulances and cops, like New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

Around 10,000 awards have been given over the years. And the Carnegie Awards carefully catalog not just what happens to those victims who are rescued -- but the rescuers’ injuries: hypothermia, burns, exposure, smoke inhalation, cuts, scrapes, and bruises.

Andrew Carnegie was a self-made man from another era. He was a steel and railroad baron from the turn of the century; the days the Copper Valley was first being settled. He began his awards in 1904, spurred on by the belief that there were such things as selflessness and brave deeds. The same beliefs that led to the founding of the Boy Scouts, a few years later, in 1910.

His awards spur on an acknowledgement of public service, and are seen as a symbol of the American Way -- a nod to courage, bravery and idealism in a culture where saving others is purely optional. And not something that a “normal” person might be driven to do.

Since impromptu, impulsive rescue is such a risky business, around half of all Carnegie Award rescuers are injured, and 16% of Carnegie Award winners are unfortunately dead by the time they’re given their awards -- killed by the rescue.


And yes. Often, Carnegie Award winners are “good Samaritans” -- in the old, biblical (and Copper Valley) sense of the word. As a 2005 University of Illinois paper, “Rescue without Law” observes, a high number of award winners are people with “relatively low status and/or unskilled occupations” who clearly  identify with the lives, status and plights of the people they rescue, and use the compassion they get from their  shared positions in life as a reason for trying to help them.   (University Illinois)

In many ways, this is a commentary on the Copper Valley’s rural system of caring for others, and its overwhelming interest in volunteering. The people of the Copper Valley had most to lose in their efforts to volunteer. They seriously didn't fall into the category of self-made ‘philanthropists.’ They were not rich; they didn't have any time on their hands. They were overworked with the trials of ordinary life. 


And yet, they stepped up when needed.

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.


© 2016, Northcountry Communications Inc.


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Write us at ncountry@gci.net! Bearfoot Travel Magazines/Copper River Country Journal, Gakona, Alaska

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