New York

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2007, 12:00am

The subway system reflects so much about New York that what happens on it is elemental to the city's state of mind. Life beneath the city's streets combines everything from fear to ambition to anger and vitality - the good and the bad staring you in the face every day.

In recent years, the subway's 468 stations and 1,355km sprawl of tracks have been associated as much with grim news as with anything uplifting despite the city's economic health.

A strike by subway workers just before Christmas a year ago; a woman left unaided by a ticket booth clerk as she was attacked on a station; several crazy knife and chainsaw attacks on passengers; and, of course, the ever-present anxiety about a terrorist attack.

To Julius Thorne, a train operator who's been working in the system for seven years, it is the coldness and selfishness of passengers that upsets him. Mr Thorne says that most of the time when a passenger is sick and needs help fellow passengers won't approach the train conductor until they get off. This attitude can explain why a year ago passengers allowed a man's body to travel for six hours on the system before anyone reported he was dead.

But somehow all those nightmares seemed to be insignificant this past week with the heroism of construction worker Wesley Autrey, the man who jumped down on to the tracks and covered a fallen stranger with his own body as a train headed towards them. They amazingly managed to stay low enough between the tracks to survive unharmed by the train as it ran over them.

Even the most hardened New Yorkers have been touched by the story. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, real estate tycoon Donald Trump, Disney World and many others have poured accolades and gifts on the 'Subway Superman' and his two young daughters who were with him on the platform when he dived on to the tracks. Among the rewards - the city's 'Bronze Medal', 12 months of subway cards, a free week-long visit to Disney's theme parks, a US$10,000 cheque and scholarships for the two girls.

Many saluted Mr Autrey for helping to adjust the negative image of New Yorkers, who are more often thought to be too busy or too selfish to help in such circumstances. 'Because of the amount of people here, we get caught up in our own concerns and our own businesses. But I think inside we all have respect and kindness. This man made us feel good about being New Yorkers,' said Steve Davidson, 62, who was interviewed on a subway platform.

'This guy did a fantastic job,' said Ronald Hing, an immigrant from Guyana, who said he has never seen anything like this during the 18 years he has worked as a train conductor.

But Mr Hing said he also realised not everybody was an Autrey. 'There are heroes in this city but there are also people who want to rob you,' he said.

Mr Thorne says he hopes the buzz about Mr Autrey may bring the good out of more people. 'Sometimes when people see a good deed, they try to follow,' he said.

Above ground that proved to be true almost immediately. Last Friday, two good Samaritans managed to catch a three-year-old boy when he fell from a fourth-floor apartment, prompting New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to announce 'the week of heroes' at a news conference.