5 Deaths That Saved A Ton of Lives

Looking at some of history’s bravest corpses
5 Deaths That Saved A Ton of Lives

Ah, the good old trolley problem. The cause of scratched chins aplenty. In the extremely rare event that you’ve never heard of it or seen that one illustration that’s crossed over from philosophical conundrum to meme, let me lay it out for you. First, imagine you’re in some strange, villain-infested version of San Francisco or wherever trolleys actually still exist. A trolley is trundling down the tracks towards a fork. In its unchanged path, it’ll three-piece a string of people who have been tied to the tracks by some criminal mastermind with a taste for the antique. You, possibly luckily for the people but unluckily for your future guilt, are next to a switch that would divert the trolley to another track with only a single possible victim.

What do you do? First of all, you live your life in a manner that this shit won’t ever crop up. If it does, well, now you’ve got a real Batman-level decision on your hands. Now, let’s look at a slight twist, where YOU’RE the one on track number two, bound up but with one free arm and a switch within the combined radius of your humerus and ulna. Are you willing to get sliced up exquisite corpse style to save the lives of others? I’d hope I would, but I’m also clinically depressed, which feels like cheating.

Here’s 5 heroes who made the decision to take the metaphorical trolley to the dome and saved plenty of lives as a result.

Alfred Vanderbilt

Public Domain

Maybe the same pose this badass struck while waiting to sink.

I spend enough of my time on this website bashing billionaires, and for good reason. It’s not nearly as complicated a moral quandary to ask if people should starve so that IRL Smaug can go to space. When a filthy rich fellow does make the right decision, then, I owe it to them to give them their glow. One such guy was Alfred Vanderbilt, an heir to the same old-money fortune that Anderson Cooper is on the trailing end of.

So when Alfred Vanderbilt was aboard the HMS Lusitania, a passenger ship torpedoed during World War I, you can be sure the crew were under instructions to pop him in their most comfortable lifeboat ASAP. Instead, Alfred spurned both his emergency first-class evacuation and even his lifejacket. He put every one of his last moments towards helping ensure as many children were evacuated from the doomed ship as possible. Ultimately, he vanished into the sea along with 1,198 others.

Fujio Koshita

Public Domain

As you can imagine, staying in the top of a tower during this was not advisable.

Don’t you hate it when something at your job stops working at the worst possible time? Slack goes down right when you have an important time-sensitive question, or the fridge at the grocery store breaks down right as you’re done stocking it? Fujio Koshita definitely feels that pain. The Japanese firefighter was on the receiving end of one of the most unfortunate equipment failures in history when the siren system meant to warn residents of Otsuchi about tsunamis decided to crap out during the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

You know Koshita must have given that console the smack to end all smacks, hoping it would stir to life, jukebox style. No such luck. Searching for a way to still send out the incredibly important message, Fujio was forced to go analog, digging out an old bell and lugging it to the top of the tower. In lieu of the siren, the bell alerted the villagers who were able to flee. Unfortunately, Koshita perished due to his selfless act. If there’s any guy in history who’s allowed to truly hate technology, he has to be on top of the list.

Jesus Garcia

Luis Alvaz

If you're going to be blown to smithereens, at least try to get a statue out of it.

The trolley problem mentioned earlier is meant to be metaphorical, but trainman Jesus Garcia found himself smack-dab in the middle of an almost pitch-perfect rendition. Depending on your view of morality and capacity for empathy, he passed with flying colors. While working the brakes, Jesus’ train en route to Nacozari, Mexico, caught fire. Not ideal, sure, but usually more of an “EVERYBODY OFF” situation than something pulled from an action movie.

This fire though, was a big-time problem, because the cargo that train was hauling was explosives. Fire and explosives being two things that want to be together at all costs to the detriment of everyone around them, like your friend and their worst ex. Everybody but Garcia was able to bail off the train safely, but when it came time for him to exit, he realized that would send a speeding bit of accidental terrorism straight into town. Instead, he stayed on board and diverted the train to a more remote location, the best outcome for everyone but his body and its preference to keep all its bits connected.

John Robert Fox

Public Domain

The man lived the real-life climax of a war movie.

Getting blown up by your own air strike is something you usually only see in low-level Call of Duty lobbies, not in real life. I have to assume it’s pretty high on the military curriculum that when you get on the horn with artillery distributors, you’re not supposed to say, “here.” For John Robert Fox, a first lieutenant fighting in World War II, he instead received a medal for that mostly ill-advised command.

Fox and his men were defending Sommocolonia, a village in Italy, when they realized that this battle was not going to end up in the W column. The Germans were overwhelming them, and they had no choice to retreat. Fox gave the order for every man to retreat, save one: himself. He stayed behind, and once the Germans had overrun the town, he called in an airstrike on his own location. Understandably, his coordinates were questioned, to which he responded, “Fire it! There’s more of them than there are of us. Give them hell!” He received a Medal of Honor for the decision… in 1997, because during World War II, even seeing the terror of the Nazi regime apparently wasn’t enough to convince the U.S. black soldiers deserved medals.

The Village Of Eyam

Donald Judge

No modern comparison for this at all! Nope!

Convincing yourself that your death is necessary to save other lives is a tough enough job. Convincing a whole village of people to sack up and bite the big one seems borderline impossible. Well, William Wompesson must have had a sterling silver tongue, which he used in the service of saving lives. He was the rector of the Village of Eyam when they were beset by the bubonic plague thanks to one tragically filthy bit of cloth. 

As cases emerged, the villagers got ready to get the hell out of there, but Wompesson, knowing that would spread the plague to every refuge they ended up at, instead pleaded with them to stay (and die) to contain the disease. It must have been one hell of a speech, because the whole village agreed, and remained in their infected village, many dying as a result. Surrounding villages, thanks to their sacrifice, remained healthy.

Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, “What A Time To Be Alive” about the 5 weirdest news stories of the week on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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