Photos: Everyday American heroes

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  1. No. 1: Bus driver to the rescue

    Richard Lucas stands in front of a burned-out home in Buffalo, N.Y. Lucas was driving a bus in July when he noticed smoke coming from a two-story house, home to two families. Lucas stopped and pounded on the door to wake the families sleeping inside. The families, shown standing on the porch of their former home, credit him with saving their lives. They are Shannon Reiter, Alysa Huertas, 13, Hanna Huertas, 10, Briana Huertas, 8, Emily Hunter, RosaLynda Baez, 11, MarcoAntonio Baez, 9, and Emiliana Baez, 5. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Richard Lucas, 45, receives letters from the two families he rescued from the house blaze. "Everytime I drive by the house, I think about what would have happened had I not stopped," Lucas says. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Fire victims extend their gratitude to Lucas, who reads letters from one of the children he saved from the burning home. Authorities still do not know what caused the blaze. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. No. 2: Good Samaritan

    Victor Perez chased down a suspected kidnapper in his truck, shown here in Fresno, Calif. His actions are credited with freeing an abducted 8-year-old girl. (Max Whittaker / for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. No. 3: Hero tot

    Jaden Bolli is credited with saving the life of his grandmother, Patricia Bolli, who is holding him at her home in Maple Shade, N.J. Bolli had a seizure and Jaden, then 3, helped her by calling 911. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. No. 4: 'Amazing woman'

    After seeing his plea for a kidney donation on Facebook, April Capone Almon donated her organ to Carlos Sanchez. They have formed a close friendship because of it and are seen here catching up near the East Haven Town Hall in East Haven, Conn., where Almon is mayor. "She is an amazing woman," Sanchez says. (Jonathan D. Woods / msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. No. 5: 'Lucky'

    Christa Brelsford, 25, was volunteering in a literacy program in Haiti when the January earthquake hit. She was pinned by falling rubble until several Haitians, including Wenson George, 19, helped rescue her. Brelsford, who ended up having her right leg amputated below the knee, is committed to giving back to the Haitian community. "I was lucky," she says. Now, her family is planning to bring George to Anchorage so he can attend high school. (Bill Roth / The Anchorage Daily News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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By Senior writer/editor
msnbc.com
updated 4/1/2011 1:01:44 PM ET 2011-04-01T17:01:44

If someone had told Victor Perez at the beginning of the year that he'd soon find fame because of a heroic act, he would have laughed. He couldn’t even find a job.

But the events of Oct. 5 were so unbelievable that the 30-year-old unemployed construction worker was left shaking and speechless.

"Never, ever in my wildest dreams would I think something like this would happen," said Perez, who is credited with saving the life of an abducted 8-year-old girl. "I'm trying to make sense of all this hero stuff."

As you prepare to sit down for your turkey dinner today, we thought it would be a good time to give thanks to America’s unexpected heroes — everyday people, like Perez, who are thrust into the role with little if any preparation.

Read on and you’ll meet five such heroes, and hear about the impact that their acts of bravery or kindness have had on the people they helped — and on their own lives. In addition to Perez, they are:

  • A New York bus driver who stopped to rescue two families from a burning house – and then went on to finish his route.
  • A New Jersey tot who dialed 911 and saved his grandmother's life.
  • A University of Arizona grad student who lost her leg in the Haiti earthquake, then  returned to the country to build a school — and help a teenager who helped pull her from the rubble and then rushed her to get medical treatment.
  • A Connecticut mayor who donated her kidney to a Facebook friend.

'True action hero'
California authorities hailed Perez as a hero after he chased down a suspected kidnapper and helped free an 8-year-old Fresno girl. Fresno's mayor declared Oct. 7 "Victor Perez Day" and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger described him as "a true action hero."

Looking back on the frightening moments when he chased down and confronted the suspect, Perez said he felt that he had no choice but to act.

"I just had to do the right thing," he told msnbc.com. "My mom always told me that no matter what, you help people. Her message: 'Look out for one another.'"

The child's mother said Perez saved her daughter's life.

"He was heroic, very decided, and he risked his own life for someone he didn't even know," the victim's mother said in Spanish. She said her daughter, who was sexually assaulted during the ordeal, is recovering and undergoing counseling. Msnbc.com does not identify sexual assault victims as a matter of policy.

'Save her'
Police say 24-year-old Gregorio Gonzalez, a suspected gang member, abducted the child from in front of her Fresno apartment on Oct. 4, prompting a statewide Amber Alert.

"I think that man's intentions were to kill my daughter," the mother said.

Image: Victor Perez
Max Whittaker  /  Max Whittaker for msnbc.com
"I'm trying to make sense of all this hero stuff," says Victor Perez. He chased down a suspected kidnapper and helped free an 8-year-old Fresno, Calif., girl.

The morning after the abduction, Perez and his cousin, Flor Urias, were watching TV in Urias’ house in an east Fresno neighborhood that Perez described as so bad that "people with common sense" avoid it. A special report about the kidnapped child flashed on the screen. Perez saw a picture of the suspect's vehicle, a rust-colored truck. Recognizing the area where the abduction occurred, Perez walked outside with Urias and pointed in the direction of the crime scene. It was three blocks away.

Perez didn’t get a chance to walk back inside — a pickup resembling the suspect's vehicle drove by. Perez jumped into his white 1988 Ford truck, shouted to his cousin to call police and gave chase.

"Something more than human came over me," Perez said. "When I was next to his truck, I saw the little girl. I saw her eyes, I saw fear. I knew I had to do everything I could to save her from more harm."

Perez cut off the suspect's truck three times before he finally forced him to stop. The girl opened the pickup door and fled. Soon after, police arrested the alleged assailant.

Story: Man who saved abducted child says he was 'beyond fear'

Since then, Perez said he looks ahead to a better future: Get a contractor's license, spend time with his sons, Andres, 9, and Daniel, 13, and keep praying for the young girl's healing.

He said he has had offers for work and will accept a position once he earns his license. People donated money after a fund was set up in his name. He said he wants to use those donations to pay back arrears in child support.

"This has changed my life so much," he said. "I am a better Christian and I thank God for everything. I hope to God this child gets better."

'Guardian angel'
A hero in Buffalo drives a metro bus.

On July 14, Richard Lucas was navigating a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus through South Buffalo when he saw smoke billowing from a house. Lucas stopped the bus, ran to the house, which was home to two families, and started pounding on the door.

Shannon Reiter was inside sleeping on the first floor.

"I scrambled to the door," she said. "I was only wearing a T-shirt. Then, I saw him. He had pushed through the door and was yelling 'You gotta get out!' and I said 'Excuse me, but who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house?"

Then she saw the smoke.

Upstairs, Emily Hunter, her three children, RosaLynda Baez, 11, MarcoAntonio Baez, 9, and Emiliana Baez, 5, and an 18-year-old nephew, Reimundo Valentin, were sleeping. Hunter said she awakened to a man's voice.

"You couldn't breathe. Within minutes it all went black," she recalled.

Hunter and her family escaped and rushed across the street, where Reiter, her husband, Juan Huertas, and their daughters Alysa and Briana were huddled.

Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the blaze, which destroyed their home and killed Reiter's dog and cat.

"He saved our lives," Reiter said of Lucas, choking back tears. "He's truly our guardian angel. I am so thankful for him, for our health and for our lives."

Lucas finished his route on No. 16 that day, then texted his wife, Cindy, the news and headed home.

"He had tears in his eyes (when he arrived)," his wife said. "Even to this day, I get tears just thinking about what happened. There is so much that we had taken for granted. This has definitely changed him.

"We get along a lot better and he's a little more easy-going."

Richard Lucas, 45, agreed that he doesn't sweat the small stuff so much anymore, having gained some perspective about the fragility of human life. These days, he takes more time out to be with his wife of 15 years and children, Dalton, 15, Corey, 11, and 4-year-old Madison.He takes his celebrity in stride, but does secretly appreciate the occasional pats on the back from passengers.

Said Lucas: "I appreciate my family a lot more, that's for sure. I spend more time with them and less hours at work." 

'911 for MomMom'
Jaden Bolli, 4, has a theme song: "My 911." If the New Jersey youngster is singing it at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table, that's OK. He's the biggest reason why his family is much closer.

"Because my 911 saved MomMom," as Jaden puts it.

MomMom is his grandmother, Patricia Bolli of Maple Shade, N.J. Doctors say if her grandson hadn't made the 911 call on Jan. 22, she wouldn't have survived.

"I wasn't even supposed to watch him that day, either. It's only because his other grandmother was sick that he came over," Bolli said.

Jaden, then 3, was at his grandmother's house when she suffered a seizure. Knowing something was wrong, the child did something he had just learned just days earlier: He dialed 9-1-1.

"I cannot explain how proud I am of Jaden," said his mother, Candace Robbins. "I tell him every day, 'You are my hero, buddy,' and I am very thankful that he's in my life."

Dispatchers say Jaden even put his grandmother's dog, a German shepherd-pit bull mix, in the other room. He didn't want the paramedics to be scared of Asia, Jaden said.

"He told us everything we needed to know and he was very calm about it," said Burlington County 911 Coordinator Monica Gavio.

That's highly unusual for a children his age, said Gavio, noting that most 911 calls from kids are accidental.

Ever since that day, Jaden has been the toast of the Maple Shade, a mini-celebrity to all the children at his preschool, Candace Robbins said. New Jersey officials also presented him with the 2010 911 Hero award, Gavio said.

Bolli, his MomMom, agreed, adding, "That day made us closer. He was a Godsend."

'Make the world a better place'
Christa Brelsford, an Alaskan native who lost her leg in the Haiti earthquake on Jan. 12, returned to the island nation last week to help build a school and to assist the teenager who pulled her from the ruins.

Story: She lost leg in Haiti, but she’s glad to be alive

Brelsford, a 25-year-old doctoral student at Arizona State University's School of Sustainability, was volunteering in a literacy project in Darbonne, Haiti, when the 7.0-magnitude temblor hit. She and her brother, Julian, were in a second-story room at a friend’s house trying to connect to the Internet when the house began shaking.

Image: Christa Brelsford
Bill Roth  /  AP
Christa Brelsford holds a photograph of Wenson George. The 25-year-old returned to Haiti last week to help build a school and to assist the teenager who pulled her from the ruins.

Julian, 27, made it out, but his sister slipped on the stairs and was hit by a huge chunk of cement that crushed her right leg.

It took rescue workers hours to claw away at the rubble that had her pinned. As they worked desperately to free her, 19-year-old Haitian Wenson George joined the effort and helped pull her loose. He then threw her on the back of his motorcycle, and managed to maneuver his way through the debris-choked streets to a United Nations base, where she was able to get medical treatment that may have saved her life.

Though doctors were unable to save her lower leg, Brelsford has no time for self-pity. Instead,  equipped with a prosthetic leg designed so she can pursue her passion for rock climbing, she remains committed to improving the lives of others.

"When I was in the hospital after the earthquake, the two most important things that came to mind were: Get the school rebuilt and help the kid who dug me out.

"I promised myself that I would return to help them."

So Brelsford started a foundation, Christa's Angels, to help quake survivors. And she started the necessary process and paperwork for Wenson to apply for student visa so that he can attend school in the United States.

Attempts by msnbc.com to contact Wenson through his Facebook page were unsuccessful.

Posting on her website, Brelsford said her trauma ironically ended up enriching her life: "This experience has reinforced my faith in the basic goodness of humanity. People step up and do the right thing when they’re given the chance. I’m just a ordinary kid who had one big bite of bad luck, and an even bigger bite of very, very good luck. The bad luck was completely impersonal. Getting caught in a house was just timing. However, the good luck that I had was the result of deliberate human choices to be kind and compassionate. People stepped in at the right time, chose to help me out, and made things happen in order to get me safe. I was lucky."

And Brelsford, through her perserverance, has in turn given a gift to those she now works alongside.

Kent Annan, co-director of Haiti Partners, the group that helped Brelsford rebuild the Cabois Community School, said he draws inspiration from Brelsford's.

"Her story is remarkable as is she," Annan said.

'There’s nothing special about me'
April Capone Almon, the mayor of East Haven, Conn., had 2,700 friends on Facebook when she spotted a sad status update from one of them, Carlos Sanchez. The 44-year-old father needed a kidney.

She didn't know him well, but she knew she had to answer the bell.

Image: April Capone Almon and Carlos Sanchez
Jonathan D. Woods  /  msnbc.com
East Haven Mayor April Capone Almon donated her left kidney to Carlos Sanchez.

"I sent him a private message and just said, 'Hey, I'll try. I'll get tested,' " Capone Almon told msnbc.com. "I really felt from the very beginning that I was going to be a match and a donor. I don't know why, but I just knew it."

Story: Conn. mayor donates kidney to Facebook friend

Sanchez thought she was joking.

"I wasn't putting too much faith in it," said Sanchez, an office administrator. "I didn't want to get my hopes high. But at a point, she made me feel so comfortable that I started feeling maybe this was meant to be."

At the time, Capone Almon, a Democrat, was running for her second term as mayor, but she kept her generous offer a secret during her campaign.

Soon after her re-election, the 35-year-old politician quietly moved ahead with her plans to help Sanchez.

In April, doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital removed Capone Almon's left kidney and transplanted it into Sanchez. Both made quick recoveries and were released from the hospital less than a week after the operation.

Sanchez said he rejoices at his second lease on life. He is able to spend time with his 19-year-old son, James Taylor Sanchez-Palmer, attend his high school functions and watch him play sports.

"I could never do that before. I was always tired or too sick to go out," Sanchez said.

He also said he and Capone Almon have grown so close that people mistake them for siblings.

"I call her my little sister," he said. "It is amazing what she has done for me. She has opened my eyes to see that there are good people out there. She is an amazing woman."

Capone Almon refuses to take credit for her gift of life, saying she has gained more than she gave. She said she has become more mindful of her health and is taking better care of herself.

"There’s nothing special about me," Capone Almon said. "I always think to myself 'My God, am I lucky.' I have the fantastic life. I get to represent the very town I was born and raised in and I am always thankful. Because of this, I am anxiously awaiting the next adventure."

Msnbc.com's Miguel Llanos contributed to this story.

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Video: Haiti volunteer loses leg, but not spirit

  1. Closed captioning of: Haiti volunteer loses leg, but not spirit

    >> after it collapsed, but first, another american, one of the first rescued in haiti . we'll talk to her in a moment. and i think the smile you'll see on her face tells us an awful lot about her spirit. she's a remarkable young lady . nbc's kerry sanders is in port-au-prince with her story. kerry, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: well, good morning. her story is incredible, and there are others possibly still on the horizon here. as we look behind me, there are some seahawks. they have come in from the u.s. carrier " carl vinson ." they are about to do an aerial assessment to see if they can find an area where there may still be survivors. and the stories from survivors here are at once both uplifting and heartbreaking. in a hospital bed at miami's jackson memorial hospital , krista threlsburg spoke about the first terrifying moments after the quake struck.

    >> first, i wanted to get out of the house, and then when i realized my legs were trapped, my second thought was to protect my head and neck. in alaska, they have it in drills in school every year. that's what they tell you to do, so that's what i did.

    >> reporter: her calm composure, despite an incredible ordeal. the arizona state university student was in haiti with her brother working for a literacy program.

    >> i didn't realize that my right leg had been almost completely cut off.

    >> reporter: her leg could not be saved. this is krista and her brother, julian, before she was evacuated after having raced through the streets of haiti on a motorcycle. krista 's parents are on their way to her bedside. from their home in alaska, they expressed gratitude for those who helped free their daughter from the rubble.

    >> we will be loyal for life to the people who have taken care of a stranger in such a desperate moment. very touched.

    >> reporter: back in haiti , this is the grim scene of the many who are so desperate for help. while the relief operations continue, this american, named laura, was trapped for three hours. we spoke to her before she was evacuated. what was that like as you're trapped under there?

    >> i don't -- i was hoping i would die quickly instead of slowly, because i was stuck.

    >> reporter: today, laura is also back on american soil receiving medical attention . as for krista , the long road to recovery is just beginning, but this morning she's focusing on the positive.

    >> there are so many ways in the last two days that i could have been dead that i'm just thankful that i'm not and i'm terribly sorry for all the people in haiti , the haitians especially, who don't have the medical care that i'm getting.

    >> reporter: it says a lot about krista , that she's worried about the people here after the ordeal that she has gone through, matt.

    >> kerry, it certainly does. thank you very much. i want to introduce krista right now. krista brelsford is at miami hospital right now. krista , how are you doing?

    >> i'm doing very well, thank you.

    >> i understand when this earthquake struck, you thought a truck had hit the building where you were, and then you found yourself pinned. and even then, you didn't think your legs were badly injured at first. had you just gone numb?

    >> yeah. i thought that they were just crushed. i thought that i was wiggling all of my toes. obviously, i wasn't, but i couldn't see them.

    >> i understand when your brother and others managed to free your legs, you realized the full extent of your injuries. that must have been an extraordinarily sobering moment for you.

    >> i was so focused on not panicking and staying alive and figuring out what needed to be done to get myself out of there that i didn't worry about it right then. i just said i'm going to worry about it later . i told julian to put on a tourniquet and work on getting my second leg free and was doing my best to stay calm.

    >> christa , then this trip. i mean, you get extricated from this building. they kind of put you on a moped, and from what i read, someone was cradling you as this moped went through the streets. can you describe that trip to get to medical attention ?

    >> yeah. one of our friends, the owner of the motorcycle is driving, and then our other friend, wenson, was holding me in his arms like an infant. my leg was still flapping around. and we drove about three kilometers in the dark on pothole-rutted dirt roads with buildings collapsed all around, haitians still screaming out for help to try to get out of the buildings, walking down the road very badly injured, as we drove to the sri lankan military , their peacekeeping mission for the u.n. where i was one of the earlier survivors to get there and got some rudimentary medical care . i got the best they could give, which was a splint made out of a fence post and they put disinfectant on my leg and gave me cookies and cough drops.

    >> when you finally were told by proper doctors that they would not be able to save your leg, i mean, how do you respond to that?

    >> i didn't expect my leg to be saved, really ever. i watched over the course of 24 hours as it went from looking like a normal foot to swelling and turning colors and turning cold, which was the scariest part, but i didn't expect it to be saved, and i'm not worried about it. i'm so thankful to be alive that i'm not worried about my foot.

    >> i look at your smile, and christa , i watched you in the hospital yesterday speaking to some reporters, and i saw that smile again. and i got choked up watching you because you clearly have your priorities straight and you have already at such an early time managed to put this into perspective, haven't you?

    >> thank you.

    >> you know, you're remarkable. i mean, it's -- the fact that this -- you see this as kind of an appendage and not how you'll be defined, don't you?

    >> yeah. i'll still get to live my life. there are a lot of people in haiti who won't. and now that i have the best medical care i can get, i'm thankful for that and i hope that we do the best that we can to get medical care to haiti where there are still many, many people who need as much care as i need and more.

    >> and as i say good-bye to you, i just want to stress again, because i think this is so important to the story, that you were in haiti for all the right reasons. you were there trying to help people learn to read . you were there with an adult literacy program. and i know you have strong, strong feelings for the people there. and christa , you're awfully impressive, and i appreciate you spending some time with us this morning.

    >> thank you.

    >> good luck to you.

    >> you said it. it's about

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