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SHE FOUGHT OFF AN ATTACKING DOG

Melissa Kelley was halfway through her Bakersfield, Calif., route one morning in January 2008 when she heard someone scream. Down the block Joseph Goulart, 76, was lying on the ground, clutching his schnauzer Toby as a pit bull tore at his face. "He was holding on to his dog for dear life," Melissa, 43, a divorced mom of two teenage sons, recalls. "I used my pepper spray to stun it." After 18 pulled teeth and stitches in his lower lip, Goulart, a retired truck driver, is back to walking Toby and often tucks a box of candy into Melissa's bag when she comes by with the mail. "Melissa," he says, "saved my life."

HE USED HIS LETTER OPENER TO FREE A TRAPPED FAMILY

Ten weeks pregnant, Katie Purdom had just picked up daughter Victoria Leigh, 4, from preschool in Lebanon, Ky., on a misty afternoon last April when a neighbor's dog ran in front of her SUV. She swerved to avoid it, causing the car to flip over and land in a 4-ft.-deep creek; her seat belt locked, Katie was pinned, as was Victoria, who was belted into her booster seat in back. "The water was coming in everywhere," says Katie, 31, a nonswimmer who works in the bakery at a local Wal-Mart. "Tori kept saying, 'I'm cold, Momma, help!' It was terrifying." As she tried to reach back to hold her child's face above the rising water, Katie heard a man's voice: It was Perry Bland, 52, who had spotted them while driving on the route he's covered for 27 years. With calming words, he pulled out his plastic letter opener and started to saw away at the seat belts. Ten minutes later both mother and daughter were free, having escaped with only minor scratches. Now seven months along with a baby boy, Katie says, "I owe Perry our lives." Perry, who has become something of a local celebrity, is just thankful it all worked out. "I still get choked up," he says. "I know how close it could have been."

HE RUSHED TO THE SIDE OF AN INJURED BOY

Walter Hayes, 44, was delivering mail near Pierre Laclede Elementary School in St. Louis one afternoon in February this year when he heard screeching tires. "I saw a little boy, airborne," he says. "I took off and ran toward him." Javon Satchell, 7, just out of school, had dashed across the street to meet mom Melanie Green, 21, despite her warnings to stay put. A moment later, "Boom!" Javon says. "I got hit." As he lay on the street, crying and bleeding, Walter, an Army vet trained in first aid, propped up Javon's head with his hand and, while calling 911, covered the boy's body with his own to keep him warm and prevent shock. "People wanted to move him to the sidewalk so they could get by," Walter recalls. "I was like, 'No way!' None of us are trained paramedics." Six months later, his broken leg healed, Javon, Melanie says, now never forgets to look both ways before crossing the street. As for Walter, "he went above and beyond—'hero' is an understatement," she says. Walter demurs: "It was the Samaritan thing to do."

THEY SAVED DOZENS OF SENIORS IN A DEADLY APARTMENT FIRE

Bong Hi Miller, 75, was napping in her bedroom at the Baywood Apartments senior residence in Oakland when she woke to pounding and shouts of "Fire, fire!" Opening her door, she saw smoke filling the hall—and mailman Alan Girard. Alan, 43, had been returning from his route to the post office next door that October 2007 afternoon when he spotted trouble. "You could see an apartment glowing orange," he recalls of the three-alarm blaze that started from unknown causes and claimed one life. Running into the building occupied by 92 elderly residents, he was joined by postal employees Tanya Joseph, 46, Rick Quinonez, 39, Karen Hill, 50, and Gilbert Rangel, 52, who helped guide residents down the stairs to safety as firefighters arrived. "Their quick actions saved lives," says Oakland Acting Fire Chief Mark Hoffmann. Even today, Alan says, grateful family members stop by the post office to shake his hand. "Their children and grandchildren ask to speak to me," he says. "That's a hell of a feeling."

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