#3. The Dancer Who Rescued Cruise Ship Passengers (the Hard Way)
James Thomas was a British dancer on the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia.
You know, the boat that pulled half a Poseidon Adventure.
The Costa Concordia ran aground when the captain drove too close to land and hit a reef because he wasn't wearing his glasses and "had difficulty maneuvering large ships," two things we assumed would have been addressed at some point during the interview process.
"I just clicked the 'APPLY TO ALL' button on Monster.com."
After drifting aimlessly for about an hour and then finally running aground, the captain began supervising the evacuation process by getting the hell out of there faster than anybody else, leaving around 4,200 passengers to fend for themselves. A panic quickly ensued.
Passengers scrambled to find an escape route from the overturned ship, some simply leaping into the water to try to swim to land. A group of several others quickly became lost inside the ship, turning up one level above the life rafts that would take them to safety. The gap was too far down for any of them to reach without injury, so the passengers waited and hoped for somebody big or some kind of ropey ladder to get them to the bottom. Little did they know, they were about to get both -- James Thomas stepped onto the deck, all 6-feet-3-inches of his lanky British frame striding through them like Daniel Stern through a sea of Joe Pescis.
If you look closely, you can see that the photo of him is holding the photo of him holding the photo.
He'd only been performing as a dancer on the Costa Concordia for six months, which effectively made him more qualified than anyone else on board to lead the evacuation. Seeing the predicament the other passengers were facing, Thomas stretched one arm down to the life rafts while holding onto the rail of the deck above, allowing dozens of people to climb onto his shoulders and then down his body to the rafts.
That's right -- he turned himself into a human ladder, something that we're assuming isn't taught in any of the safety pamphlets they hand out when you get on the boat. And the next time you consider picking a fight with a dancer, keep this in mind: Thomas supported all of the weight of the climbing passengers with one freaking hand.
His strong, manly hand.
#2. The Economist Who Came Up With a Cure for a Disease That Baffled Scientists
Augusto Odone was an economist working for the World Bank with little to no medical training. His heroics would result in having a movie made about him and his family containing large doses of Nick Nolte.
At least his crazy genes are slightly offset by Susan Sarandon.
In 1984, Augusto and Michaela Odone's 6-year-old son, Lorenzo, tested positive for adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a genetic disorder that attacks the brain. It strips vision, hearing, motor function and the ability to breathe or think. At the time of Lorenzo's diagnosis, there was nothing approaching a cure or even any type of available treatment. Augusto and his wife were essentially told that their son was going to die in less than two years and there was simply nothing to be done about it.
This is one of those rare situations where the real people were much more photogenic than their movie counterparts.
Augusto, with no background in the subject, read up on everything about ALD, spending entire nights in libraries, hoping to find something that the professionals devoted to researching the disease had somehow missed. All the while, his son continued to deteriorate.
But impossibly, Augusto made a discovery: The damage ALD caused in his son came from a buildup of long chain fatty acids in the blood. Years of no medical experience whatsoever told him that if he could somehow stop this from happening, it might help Lorenzo. He swiftly organized a medical conference (with doctors this time) to discuss his research, and came away with the exact thing he'd been looking for: an oil capable of destroying long chain fatty acids.
It had to be an oil, because Lorenzo's Suppository would've sold the wrong kind of tickets.
The treatment, a combination of rapeseed and olive oils, was given to Lorenzo, and remarkably, the heinous progress of the disease seemed to stop. It wasn't a cure, and it didn't repair the extensive damage already done to Lorenzo, but he was alive, and the disease spread no further.
But while there was nothing to be done about the damage little Lorenzo had already sustained, that wasn't true for future victims of the disease; studies indicate that it works to prevent the onset of ALD once it's been diagnosed but before symptoms have developed. A study completed in 2005 showed that the oil was successful in preventing the development of ALD in 83 out of 120 trial cases where it was diagnosed, which is a hell of a thing for some oil made by a desperate father with absolutely no medical background.
As for Lorenzo himself, he lived 20 years beyond doctors' expectations, finally succumbing to pneumonia, proving once again that doctors probably don't know anything. To lessen their shame, an honorary doctorate was given to Augusto so that the medical community could credit any other discoveries he made to a real doctor and not some random dude.
#1. The Airline Passenger Who Made Sure Everyone But Him Got Rescued
Arland D. Williams was a 46-year-old federal bank examiner with a lifelong fear of water.
Six people, all with fractures to their limbs, managed to swim out of the sinking plane and gather by the tail, where they were pretty much stuck. Heavy ice, which prevented rescue boats from getting involved, was keeping them pinned to the plane, and they were quickly growing too weak to continue holding on to it. A bystander even tried to jump in and swim the 40 or so yards to the survivors, but he wound up passing out like a jackass and having to be rescued himself.
"Leave heroism to the untrained amateurs, you untrained amateur!"
Time was just about up when a rescue helicopter, piloted in near zero visibility, turned up to drop rescue lines down. They pulled out one man and dropped the line to the next, a balding, ordinary guy with "an extravagant mustache," who decided to put the rescue ring into another survivor's hands rather than take it himself, harnessing what is commonly referred to as "mustache power."
Mustache power beats plane pretzel nine times out of 10.
The helicopter plucked out this second person and dropped the line back down to the mustachioed man. Amazingly, he passed it along again, and then again after that, handing it to the last survivor he could reach (the fifth survivor was saved by Lenny Skutnik, as mentioned in our previous article). When the helicopter returned for a last run, the man was gone -- the plane's tail had shifted and sank, dragging him down with it.
It was only in the aftermath that authorities retrieved his body from the river and identified him as Arland D. Williams Jr. So here's to you, buddy. The rest of us can only hope that in that situation, we'd do the same. And then we can pray that we never have the chance to find out we're wrong.
Contact Paul K. Pickett by email.
For other noteworthy acts of badassery, check out 6 WWI Fighter Pilots Whose Balls Deserve Their Own Monument and The 11 Most Badass Last Words Ever Uttered.