Mary Bichanich has lived all her 50 years on the shores of Wisconsin's 506-acre Little Muskego Lake, where weathering fierce summer storms is a way of life. But the one that struck on July 21 came up faster than any she had ever seen before. "Winds were 60 mph. There was lightning everywhere," says the stay-at-home mother of five. Headed for shelter with 20-year-old daughter Sarah, Bichanich witnessed a terrifying scene on the lake: An enormous wave swamped two 25-ft.-long, 18,000-lb. weed-cutting barges, capsizing the vessels "like little toy boats." Bichanich could make out the figures of four workers struggling in the roiling waters. "Those barges had sharp blades, and if the wall of water could knock those barges over, it could wash those people into the blades," she says. Frantic, she called 911, then her husband, Tom. "He told me to wait," she recalls. "But I said, 'I gotta go.' " Manning her 18-ft. speedboat, Bichanich raced through pounding rain and waves toward Maynard Lepak, 66, Craig Planton, 16, Andy Link, 19, and Sondra Ignatowski, 42. When she arrived on the scene, the workers had managed to climb up the hull of one of the overturned vessels. "There were about five lightning bolts within 50 ft. of us," says Link. "That was the worst." By herself, Bichanich brought all four to shore. "She's a very courageous woman; she put herself out there when she didn't have to," says Link. "I mean, her boat could have capsized too." Bichanich's instincts gave her no choice: "We humans think too much," she says. "But I couldn't."
HIS MOM HAD A SEIZURE DRIVING AND HE SAVED THE DAY
Ryan Sullivan was hurting. On Aug. 6 the Louisville, Colo., 12-year-old fractured his wrist after a fall off his skateboard. His mom, Debbi, 49, took him to the ER, where doctors fitted Ryan with a cast, then they drove to Wal-Mart to fill a painkiller prescription. "I turned into the lot, and the last thing I remember is the sun in my eyes," recalls Debbi, a teacher. "I said, 'Mom, Mom,' " adds Ryan, "but she wouldn't do anything." Debbi was having a seizure; her right leg stiffened and pressed hard on the accelerator, sending her Mitsubishi careering through the crowded lot at 60 mph. Luckily her son knew what to do. After Debbi suffered a similar attack two months earlier from what doctors thought was a potassium deficiency, Ryan remembered her instructions: "She said, 'If anything happens to me in the car, just take the wheel.' " With one good arm, Ryan unbuckled his seat belt, crawled over the console, yanked his mom's leg off the gas, veered around another vehicle and hit the brakes before they crashed into the store's front door. "Had the car slammed into the entrance, there would have been fatalities," says Police Chief Paul Schultz. After his adventure, Ryan admits, he "shook for 15 minutes." But it wasn't all bad. Asked what it was like dodging obstacles at top speed, the avid go-karter sums it up in one word: "Sweet."
SHE DROVE OUT THE DRUG DEALERS
In 1997 Kathy Henderson found her dream home: A row house in Washington, D.C.'s Carver Terrace area. But her neighborhood was a nightmare. "There was gunfire in the middle of the day, open-air drug markets, crack houses 24/7," says Henderson, 43, a program analyst at a juvenile detention center and a single mom to daughter India, 18. Criminals "would intimidate people by slashing tires, throwing rocks and threatening."
When Henderson complained to cops, she got nowhere. So she decided to take back the streets herself. After winning an unpaid post as a neighborhood commissioner, she reinvigorated the Orange Hat Patrol, a citizen-watch group. The dealers said they'd kill her. "They broke my car windows," she says. "They said, 'We'll blow up your house, rape your daughter.' " She refused to back down—and pressured police to do more. "She held us accountable," says Chief Charles Ramsey. Now Carver Terrace, says Ramsey, "is not perfect, but it's far better." A sign of good times: Says Henderson, "We're getting a Starbucks."
THE CHOPPER WENT DOWN. HE LEAPT IN
On the afternoon of June 17, delivery-men Miguel Lopez and Luis Sotero had a dozen stops left on their route for online grocery company FreshDirect when they pulled up to a light on Manhattan's East Side. To their right a helicopter took off from a nearby pad. Inside were two pilots and six executives from MBNA, a financial services company, heading to Wilmington, Del. The chopper rose over the East River—then plummeted. "I said, 'It's going to crash!' " recalls Lopez, 38. Racing to help, he scaled a 15-ft. fence and ran for the river. "When we hit water, the tail broke off, causing the cabin to fill up," says MBNA vice chairman Lance Weaver. "We started to sink." Forcing open a door, they tried to swim for shore. Weaver and vice chairman Ric Struthers made it to land, and a small fishing boat rescued three of the others. But CEO Bruce Hammonds and pilots Blair Payton and Mark Schaberg were being pulled farther into the river by a savage current.
They might have drowned but for Lopez, who had moved to the city from Puerto Rico when he was 17. He tossed the men a buoy that had been tied to a rope, then jumped into the river himself to pull them to shore. "I had to hold on to some wood attached to the riverbank to avoid being dragged away," he says. "The water was freezing." Eventually rescue workers arrived on the scene. But before anyone could thank him properly, Lopez sprinted for his truck, slipped away and then changed into a dry uniform. "I had to go back to work," he says. "People were waiting for their groceries."
"Anyone would have grabbed the buoy, anyone would have thrown it; not many would have jumped in," says Weaver. "For Mr. Lopez to do that and then sort of go on about his business is extraordinary."
WHEN THE PILOT WAS SHOT HE TOOK A PLANE'S CONTROLS
MiKe Spicer didn't think twice when the Clay County, Kans., sheriff asked him to go up in his Cessna and help locate a suspect who had fled into farm fields on April 29. The owner of the local airport, Spicer, 56, often helps cops find stolen cars and lost kids. This time he brought a pal—Arnie Knoettgen, mayor of nearby Morganville. Airborne less than 10 minutes, they spied alleged meth manufacturer Michael Michaud hiding in a ditch. Then, says Spicer, things went horribly wrong: Michaud took aim with a .44 Magnum, piercing the plane's window and hitting Spicer in the forehead. The plane started to nose-dive."l couldn't see Mike's wound for all the blood," says Knoettgen, 59. "We had to do something fast." No pilot, he knew enough to grab the stick and level the aircraft. "I thought I had a chance if Mike talked me through," Knoettgen says. "We didn't have time to be scared." Struggling to remain conscious, Spicer gave landing instructions. Ten harrowing minutes later they touched down. Grazed by the bullet, Spicer was whisked to a hospital, treated and released. Cops nabbed Michaud the next day. As for Knoettgen, he's keeping his feet firmly on the ground. Is flight school in his future? "No way."
WHEN AN APE ATTACKED, HE DIDN'T HESITATE
For Keisha Heard, it was meant to be a fun day at the Dallas Zoo—not a horror story out of King Kong. In March '04, when Heard, 33, entered an aviary with sons Rivers, then 3, and Bernard, 8, and 3-year-old niece Kiara, she met with Jabari, a frenzied gorilla who had escaped his pen. The 340-lb. ape grabbed Rivers and stuck him, head first, into his mouth. Heard shrieked for Bernard to take Kiara and run to an exit, then charged the beast. "I wasn't going to lose him," she says. Jabari slapped her down and flung Rivers to the ground; she snagged him and tried to flee. But the pair found themselves cornered. Again the ape attacked, biting her leg. "Then," she says, "he put Rivers back in his mouth."
Watching in a crowd outside the aviary, Enrique DeLeon saw that Heard's only escape was if someone made a hole through the building's wire fence. Borrowing a utility knife, he cut furiously while another man pounded on an aviary door. Distracted, the ape dropped Rivers, and DeLeon pulled mother and son through the breach. Having a daughter, Mandi, about Rivers's age made it impossible not to help. "Something kicked in," he says. "I knew we had to get that little boy out of there."
- Vickie Bane,
- Pam Grout,
- Susan Mandel,
- Tracie Powell,
- Fernanda Santos.