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A Subway Killing: Why Didn't Anyone Help?

Scientists say you can't expect bystanders to come to your aid — but one scary night they were there for me and my dog

posted by John Stark, December 7, 2012 More by this author

People rush on a subway platform in an emergency.

John Stark has held top writing and editing positions at such magazines as Cooks' Illustrated, Body + Soul and People. For 14 years, he was a feature writer and movie critic at the San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle.  Follow John on Twitter @jrstark.


People rush on a subway platform in an emergency.
iStockphoto/ThinkStock
Over the last few days reporters have been asking New York subway riders and people on the street what they would do if they saw someone get pushed onto the track as a train was approaching. Everyone's trying to find out why no one helped Ki-Suck Han, 58, of Queens, N.Y., who was shoved off the platform by a man at a midtown station.

“I certainly would do whatever I possibly could. I wouldn’t be able to stand there and watch,” said one woman, which is what pretty much everyone else said when asked.
 
A horrifying photo of Han trying to climb back onto the platform, seconds before his gruesome death, appeared on the front page of the New York Post. When freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi, who took the picture, was asked why he didn’t lend a hand, he replied that he was hoping the flashes from his camera would alert the driver of the oncoming A train. “What surprises me is the people who were 100 feet or 150 feet away from Mr. Han did not reach out to help him,” Abbasi told the Today show.
 
This tragic incident took me back to my high school graduation in Richmond, Calif., in June 1966. A blonde girl with straight A’s named Becky was our valedictorian. Her subject that evening was Kitty Genovese, a 29-year-old Queens woman who was stabbed to death just steps from her apartment door. The date was March 13, 1964. The time was 3:15 a.m. Genovese was coming home from her job as a bar manager.
 
The incident made national headlines because neighbors who heard her screams for help supposedly ignored them. Psycho-sociologists ascribed their reaction to something called diffusion of responsibility — whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present. It has since come to be known as the bystander effect, or the Kitty Genovese effect. The phenomenon occurs in groups when no one is assigned explicit responsibility. It rarely occurs when a person is alone.
 
Although I can’t give you Becky’s exact words, I still remember the essence of her impassioned speech from 46 years ago: Our generation will not turn a deaf ear to future Kitty Genoveses who call out to us. We will be there for her.
 
If it’s true that bystanders at the 49th Street station could have helped Han, and didn’t, then Becky was wrong.
 
But I know, too, that scientists can also be wrong.
 
Five years ago I adopted a 6-year-old dog, a Doberman/hound mix, from a shelter. That same summer evening I took Goldie for a walk in the woods near my condo in Boston. I foolishly let her off leash. Enjoying her newfound freedom, she made a mad dash off the path and disappeared into the woods.
 
Suddenly, the high-pitched yelps of an injured animal filled the air. My heart stood still. I charged into the woods. When I spotted her, she was lying on her side, next to a fallen birch tree. A branch that was sticking up from its trunk had bayoneted her upper left leg. Blood was pumping out of an artery. She was trembling. Dying.

It was growing darker by the moment. I hadn't brought my cell phone.
 
With all the strength I could muster, I lifted her into my arms. I carried her to the edge of the woods where I set down her 80-pound body. I could make out, through the bars of an iron fence that separated the woods from a recreation area, a group of young men of various ethnicities playing a spirited game of dodge ball on a basketball court.

Goldie’s ongoing, piercing howls caused them to cease playing and look in our direction. “Can you help us?” I pleaded.
        
Without a second of hesitation, they scaled the eight-foot fence. Even the spikes didn’t stop them from coming over it.  
 
A young man in a Red Sox cap took off his T-shirt and made a tourniquet for my dog’s leg. Another got on his cell phone and called our local animal hospital. “Have a gurney waiting,” I heard him say.

“But I didn’t bring my car,” I said.

“I’ll run home and get mine,” said another young man, who took off running.    
 
When he returned with the car, another dodge ball player and I got in the backseat with Goldie. The driver used his GPS to find the best route to Angell Memorial veterinary hospital. Throughout the 15-minute ride, the young man sitting next to Goldie carefully poured capfuls of bottled water down her throat to keep her hydrated.
 
Upon arrival at the hospital, Goldie was rushed into surgery. As I sat waiting for news of her health, the three young men who had brought us there in the car filled out the admitting forms. I didn’t have my glasses with me. One man got on his cell phone and called my downstairs neighbors. He asked them to bring me a change of clothes. I hadn’t noticed, but I was soaked in blood.
 
As a surgeon in green scrubs appeared to announce Goldie’s fate, the remaining members of the dodge ball team came bounding through the hospital’s automatic glass doors. When the doctor said she was going to live, the team members high-fived one another and me. They then took off, saying they were late for a pizza date.
 
Too bad they weren't there for Ki-Suck Han.