Image: Rescue of Air Florida passengers in 1982
Charles Pereira  /  AP
A U.S. Park Police helicopter pulls two people from the wreckage of the remains of the Air Florida jetliner after it fell into the Potomac River when it hit a bridge while taking-off from National Airport in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1982.
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updated 11/26/2007 7:27:42 AM ET 2007-11-26T12:27:42

Like all great mysteries, this begins with a corpse. On January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 smashed nose-first into the rock-solid ice covering the Potomac River just outside Washington, D.C. To horrified onlookers, it seemed impossible that anyone could be alive inside the mangled steel carcass slowly vanishing into the water. But one by one, six survivors gasped to the surface and grabbed desperately at the tail of the plane.

They'd had to swim up past their dead friends and seatmates and spouses to escape. They knew that unless they were pulled out, fast, they'd soon be sinking back down to join them. Just hanging on was agony: The six survivors had fractured arms and shattered legs, and their hands were freezing into claws that slipped from the wet steel.

"Help us!" they screamed. "We're going to die out here!"

They were only 40 or so yards from the Virginia shore but surrounded by an arctic nightmare of jagged ice. Pushing a rescue boat into those shards would be suicide. Piloting a chopper into the whipping snowstorm would be nearly as risky — that's what brought the plane down in the first place.

Would-be rescuers yanked ladders off utility trucks and tried stretching them across the ice. They knotted scarves and fan belts into makeshift ropes and dangled them from the 14th Street Bridge. One man even tried dog-paddling through the ice chunks, hauling a jury-rigged rescue rope along with him. He couldn't get close and was nearly unconscious by the time he was dragged back in.

Twenty minutes after the crash, the sun was going down, and no one had been able to reach the six survivors. They were doomed...until suddenly, miraculously, a rescue chopper came whisking across the darkening sky. It dropped a life ring right into the hands of one of the survivors and plucked him from the water. Then things turned really strange.

The next person to receive the ring handed it over to someone else. The chopper lofted her to safety, then wheeled back.

The man gave away the ring again.

And again.

He even gave it away when he knew it was his last chance to live. He must have known, because when the chopper thundered back seconds later, he was gone. The man in the water had vanished beneath the ice.

Who was he? But far more perplexing: Why was he? Why would anyone put the lives of strangers ahead of his own? He couldn't even see the faces of the people he was saving, because they were on the opposite side of the wreckage, yet he made a sacrifice for them that their best friends might have refused.

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The one man who knew for sure was at the bottom of the Potomac. The only other clue, it turned out, was twisted deep inside the male psyche.

The science of self-sacrifice
Heroism is one of the last remaining riddles of human behavior. When it comes to root causes and rational explanations, heroism is as baffling as its evil twin, brutality. Actually, psychopaths are slightly more transparent than heroes; we've at least figured out that what makes a psychopath so dangerous is a psychological disconnect, a lack of caring for anyone but himself.

But what accounts for someone who cares too much?

Extreme heroism springs from something that no scientific theory can fully explain; it's an illogical impulse that flies in the face of biology, psychology, actuarial statistics, and basic common sense. Anyone who's read news stories about drownings at the beach and corpses pulled from smoking rubble knows that in many cases, heroes tend to bump up the body count: The rescuers are as likely to die as the people they're trying to rescue.

"What I find fascinating is how rare it is for even a hero to understand his own heroism," says Earl Babbie, Ph.D., a professor emeritus in behavioral sciences at Chapman University who has written extensively about heroics. "I'll bet you won't find a single example of a person who says, 'Yes, I'm a hero.' A few years back, a hijacker on a plane pointed a gun at a passenger. The flight attendant got between the gun and the passenger and said, 'You'll have to kill me first.' Afterward, the flight attendant said, 'No, no, I'm no hero.' And I thought, For Christ's sake, if that doesn't qualify, what does? I don't think it's modesty. I think it's bewilderment."

Babbie has a dream experiment he'd love to perform: "I wish it were possible to interview heroes the day before they risk their lives for someone else," he says. "I bet you won't find anyone who can tell you with assurance what he or she would do in a life-threatening situation."

Just the opposite, in fact: Babbie has found that most people doubt or deny they even have heroic tendencies. To demonstrate the point, he likes to read the Boy Scout Oath and Law out loud in class and watch his students squirm when he comes to the parts about being "trustworthy," "loyal," "helpful," and "friendly."

"Virtue isn't respectable these days, and we've certainly seen enough hypocrisy among so-called moral leaders to question what they tell us to do," Babbie says. "But at some deeper level, we still instinctively idolize the kind of heroic behavior we claim is foreign to us, and keep acting on the heroic urges we claim we don't have."

A riddle in the wreckage
"He seemed sort of middle-aged and, uh, maybe balding?" That was all the chopper pilot could say about the mystery hero, which really wasn't much. Given that it was Washington, D.C., the description fit just about half the passengers on any flight.

Millions of TV viewers had been riveted to the rescue as it was beamed live from the banks of the Potomac, but they couldn't see the hero from behind the wreckage. Not even the people he saved had a good look; all they saw was a hand wrapped around a rescue ring.

But just when it seemed the hero would forever be an unknown soldier, the D.C. coroner made a crucial discovery: Of the 74 bodies, only one had lungs filled with water. That man was the only person who made it out of the plane but not out of the river. He was Arland Williams Jr., a 46-year-old federal bank examiner whose life had been a monument to playing it safe — until the moment he lost it.

"Danger" wasn't Arland Williams Jr.'s middle name. "Chub" was, and was he ever a Chub. Not that he was especially heavy; his Chubness was more about personality than pants size, about being a grinning, gosh-golly, aw-shucks kind of guy who wasn't even riled by everyone calling him Chub. His college roommate never heard his real name till the day they received their diplomas.

"Arland never called a lot of attention to himself," says Peggy Fuesting, his girlfriend from high school in Mattoon, Illinois. "But he liked to have a good time. If you've ever seen Happy Days, that's exactly the way we were. We were all a group who went to high school together, went to the football games and the hops. After lunch, we'd play records and dance. We all knew who the good dancers were. Chub was certainly a good dancer."

When he wasn't jitterbugging in the gym, Chub was drilling with the Mattoon High School ROTC. That small taste of Army life helped him figure out a way to succeed in the eyes of his father, the Big Man around Mattoon and the president of the local bank. Chub decided to go to the Citadel, one of the most exclusive and demanding military colleges in the country. Peggy understood the decision, but she also knew something about Chub that had her worried.

"He had to pass a water-safety and swimming requirement, and it made him very uneasy," Peggy says. "He'd had that fear of water his whole life, and he didn't know if he could overcome it to push through that test."

Actually, Chub would be lucky if he lasted long enough to get his head wet. The Citadel is so grueling that in an average year, a quarter of the new cadets become ex-cadets in the first week. More than a third never graduate.

"They make a man out of you," says Benjamin Franklin "Frank" Webster, Chub's Citadel roommate. "The job of the upperclassmen is to remake you from a boy to a man in 1 year. They push you, physically and mentally. We lost 30 cadets before we even started classes."

The kind of men the Citadel makes typically come in two varieties: On one side, you have the real fire-eaters like William Westmoreland (Class of  '39), who ripped through the ranks to become commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, and Micah Jenkins (Class of 1854), who was already so badly wounded before one Civil War battle that he had to be carried to the front lines in a medical wagon, and who not only picked himself up to fight but also kept yelling for his troops to "carry the day" after he was later shot in the forehead.

Then there are men like Frank Webster and Chub, who finished the job without thrusting themselves any deeper into the action than they had to. Many of their classmates ended up in Vietnam, including one who was imprisoned with John McCain in the Hanoi Hilton and another who became legendary by defying torture and writing patriotic songs on toilet paper in his own blood. But Chub was more of a take-it-as-it-comes kind of guy.

"He was always fun, always laughing," Webster recalls. "Pretty normal, really. Just quietly went about what he had to do."

Chub finished his 4 years of college, did his 2 required years of military service in a stateside post, and then followed his dad's comfortably familiar footsteps into banking. There he found a way to retreat even further from the line of fire; he shifted from running a bank to becoming a bank examiner, meaning he wouldn't even have the face-to-face hassle of dealing with customers. Instead, he'd spend the next 20 years sitting quietly in an office and checking the math of other bankers.

Survival of the selfish
Even Charles Darwin, that human decoder ring of bizarre behavior, found the idea of saving a stranger's life to be a total head-scratcher.

"He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature," observed Darwin, who consequently couldn't figure out how to crowbar heroism into his survival-of-the-fittest theory.

Die for your own kids? Perfectly logical. According to Darwin, your only reason to exist is to pass your genes along to the next generation. But to die for a rival's kids? It seems totally counterproductive. No matter how many virile, healthy heroes you bore, it would take just one selfish bastard with a hearty sex drive to spoil the whole species. Selfish Bastard's kids would thrive and multiply, while SuperDad's kids would eventually follow their father's example and sacrifice themselves into extinction.

So if all the forces of evolution seemed to be aligned against heroism, why does it still exist?

Damned if Andrew Carnegie knew. Carnegie was the Darwin of the urban jungle, a street savant who discovered enough about the inner workings of the human psyche to command the loyalty of armies of workers and outthink the sharpest hustlers in the world, including the theretofore unbeatable J.P. Morgan.

Carnegie was so obsessed with patterns of human behavior that he devoted a sizable amount of his life and fortune to studying under the top minds of his time. But when it came to deciphering heroism, even the best-financed investigator in the world came up short. The mechanics of self-sacrifice are so unpredictable, Carnegie found, you can't even jimmy them with greed: A man won't plunge into danger for money, but he'll do it for free.

"I do not expect to stimulate or create heroism by this fund, knowing well that heroic action is impulsive," Carnegie said in 1904 when he established the Carnegie Hero Fund, which gives cash awards to civilians who save others' lives.

But while he couldn't create heroes-for-hire, Carnegie accidentally found a way to make them more comprehensible. Because only pure, spontaneous do-gooders are eligible for the Carnegie Medal (not professional lifesavers or protective parents), the Carnegie archives are now a historical record of people who really shouldn't be heroes.

And so, after sifting through more than a century's worth of Carnegie case studies, three intriguing factors snap into focus.

1. Lots of guys are risking their lives: Since 1904 the Carnegie Commission has seen over 80,000 cases of extreme heroism.

2. "Guys" is exactly the right word; nine out of every 10 Carnegie heroes have been men. That means about 800 men are hurtling themselves into danger every year. And there's no telling how many other men are risking their lives with no recognition at all.

3. If you want a Carnegie Medal, prepare to die trying. Heroism is a lethal business; during a typical 5-year stretch, nearly one in four Carnegie Medals was bestowed upon a corpse. When it comes to saving lives, you have a better chance of surviving a game of Russian roulette.

Why, then, do so many of us gamble against such rotten odds? Few men knew better than Chub, who had plenty of time to change his mind but still tempted those odds not once, but three times in a row.

Countdown to catastrophe
Chub was antsy that day. He'd suddenly found himself in a tug-of-war between his heart and a national calamity.

He'd flown to D.C. to brief his bosses on a Florida bank that was so screwed up, Chub was recommending that it be shut down. He'd planned to speak his piece on Monday and hit the road the same afternoon, but it wasn't that easy: By 1982, Chub was a veteran bank examiner at a time when banking was a disaster. The savings-and-loan industry had erupted into what economist John Kenneth Galbraith would call "the largest and costliest venture in public misfeasance, malfeasance, and larceny of all time."

Bank examiners rarely stay on the job for more than a few years. The travel is rough, and there's a ton more money to be made in the private sector. Chub was one of the very rare breed who settled in for life. That's why, when the S and L fiasco exploded all around him, every trip to D.C. ended up taking a lot longer than he expected.

"We really relied on a seasoned hand like Arland to make sure we handled things right," says Jack Guynn, a colleague who went on to become president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. "It sounds like an innocuous job, but you'd be amazed at what you come across -- all the gory financial stuff about kingpins and important people. You see their credit histories, their loan defaults, stuff they were doing that maybe they shouldn't have been doing."

Once the snowstorm hit on Wednesday, Guynn and some colleagues decided to stay overnight, but Chub had snapped his briefcase shut and headed to the airport. No way was he staying. He'd just begun a surprising new romance and, Chub being Chub, had to knock out his responsibilities before seeing his heartthrob again. First, he'd wrap the job in Florida; then he'd catch up with his kids in Georgia; and then, finally, he'd be free to scoot back to Mattoon for a few blissful days with none other than his old flame, Peggy Fuesting.

Chub's marriage had broken up recently, and he'd been bruised enough to seek out his girlfriend from a quarter-century ago. Peggy was also finalizing an ugly divorce, and they'd begun calling each other all the time, exploring what they'd learned from one bad relationship and revealing what they were seeking in the next. In the process, they discovered that their romance was quickly rekindling.

"But I have to have 100 percent commitment," Peggy recalls warning him.

Chub had to think that over. "One hundred percent — that's a lot," he finally said. "You have to keep a little for yourself. That's what I've learned."

What? Peggy was baffled. Chub was afraid of commitment? The guy who ignored the swinging '60s to go to military school and who still called his mom every day? Peggy didn't get it: If he really cared about her, wouldn't he at least lie about his fear?

But gradually she began to understand. In their long, late-night conversations, Chub had made it clear that if his personal and professional life had taught him anything, it was that little risks have big consequences. He'd committed himself to marriage, and he'd been hurt. He went to work every day and saw bankers ruined for life because they'd tried to get away with "harmless" little side deals.

No thanks; not for Chub. He wasn't going to risk more pain by committing himself heart and soul too soon, and he wasn't going to fib about it. If there was a reason he felt stretched too thin right now, it was because he was obsessed with avoiding mistakes.

But just when Chub was steely focused on doing things right, he might have made the biggest mistake of his life.

A band of brothers
We don't woo our wives with clubs. We don't leave old folks on ice floes. And maybe the time has come to quit diving into rip tides to save people we don't know. We've outgrown a lot of survival-of-the-fittest strategies, and risking our lives for strangers might be one of them.

"It could very well be that altruism is a behavior that has been held over from a much earlier time," explains Lee Dugatkin, Ph.D., a professor of biology at the University of Louisville and the author of The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness. Specifically, a time when the only people you saw your entire life were the members of your own hunter-gatherer clan.

"If you saved someone's life under those conditions, you were very likely saving a blood relative," says Dugatkin. "It is not easy to come up with a viable argument to explain the evolution of self-sacrifice for strangers. That may be the reason these stories make the headlines, because they're so unnatural to us. It tells us something about our predisposition that we're always surprised when someone jumps on the subway tracks to save a little girl."

Extreme heroism is so counterintuitive, Dugatkin points out, that it demands special training. "Look at the military," he says. "The armed forces always use the language of kinship to condition soldiers to think of one another as family. They're not 'strangers'; they're a 'band of brothers.' " Consider the first things you experience in boot camp: Your head is shaved, and your clothes are replaced with olive drabs. Instantly, you're identical to all your brothers.

And as if to prove that point, Andrew Carnegie's archives have one more clue to reveal about the mystery of heroism: The overwhelming majority of heroes come from small towns. Roughly 80 percent hail from places where people still see themselves as kin: places like Mattoon, Illinois.

What a hero leaves behind
So when that life ring fell into Arland's hands, something irresistible might have clicked inside. Beneath his happy-go-lucky, get-along exterior, a perfect hero lurked: a small-town guy who'd also been drilled in the Citadel's band-of-brotherhood ethic. "Always take care of your people first," Frank Webster recalls of their Citadel training. "That's an unbreakable code. You go last. Your people go first." Chub didn't have to see the survivors across the wreckage from him to know they weren't strangers, they were family.

The only thing that spoils that heartwarming story, though, is this: Chub already had a real family, and they were left with a steep price to pay for his decision.

"It killed my grandfather," says Leslie Williams, Arland's daughter. Chub's dad was in the midst of battling lung cancer when he received word of his only son's death. In the fairy-tale version, the hero's father would be overwhelmed with pride, but in the real- life version, Arland's father never recovered from the news. Within 18 months of Arland's death, his dad was gone, too.

Chub's mom lived on, but she wasn't the same. She was much quieter, as if nursing a bruise that wouldn't heal. Arland's son — Arland III, known as Trey — was 15 when his dad died. Trey was just starting to get into trouble then, nothing that some Mattoon values and a little Citadel-style discipline wouldn't cure. But Chub wasn't there to provide either. "It was hard for him. Trey lost his dad at a difficult age," says Leslie. "Dad's discipline would have made a difference." Trey never seemed to find his way. He later married and divorced but never had any children. Cancer took him by the time he was 37.

Leslie is the last of the Williamses, and her one unfortunate legacy has been the lingering sting of guilt. She was 17 when her father died, and she was going through the feelings every teenager experiences during a divorce in the family. Most kids have a chance to work those things out and reconcile with their dads. To this day, Leslie wishes she would have had more years to know him as an adult.

"It's a constant presence in my life," she says of losing her father. She's even gone to work in his old office: Leslie is now the Web director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She is also the single mother of two wonderful adopted daughters, ages 10 and 3. She hasn't shown her daughters the tape of their grandfather's last minutes. Not yet. She's not sure at what age they would understand. Leslie respects what her father did, she really does. But ask her how she feels, and her honest answer is this: "Why didn't you just hang on?"

Surprisingly, the Citadel seems to reflect that same mix of pride and anguish over Arland's death. It has created an Arland D. Williams Society, which chooses members not from alums who lose their lives for others but who live for others. Two new members are chosen each year based on their lifelong social service. And the first recipient of the honor? Chub's easygoing former roommate, Frank Webster, who has spent decades helping the infirm.

Today, there's also an Arland D. Williams Jr. Bridge, in Washington, D.C.; an Arland D. Williams Jr. Elementary School, in Mattoon, Illinois; and an Arland D. Williams, Jr. Endowed Professorship of Heroism at the Citadel. There's an Arland Williams folk song and a made-for-TV movie. There's even an Arland Williams shrine created by a woman in Japan. But as Darwin predicted, there is no Arland Williams IV.

And there never will be.

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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