Their Finest Hour
Adrift in a boat after their uncle falls overboard, two levelheaded kids pluck him from the sea.
Whenever Craig Ferguson takes his 23-ft. cabin cruiser for a spin while visiting his sister and her three kids in New Port Richey, Fla., one rule applies: "All children have to wear a life jacket," says Ferguson, 58, a married grandfather and owner of a Lake Geneva, Wis., plastics company. "Normally, I wear one too."
Except, that is, for the sunny afternoon of April 2, when he boarded the Bobbin 1 with his sister Janet Walsh's two younger kids, Alex, 8, and Katie, 7, for a day of cruising on the Gulf of Mexico. Ferguson can't explain why he didn't don his safety gear, but he's certain of one thing: "It was a dumb, dumb thing to do." The three were heading home when he spotted a foam boat bumper floating about a mile and a half from shore. Thinking that his oldest nephew, Justin, 12, could use it on his own dinghy, he leaned down to retrieve it—and fell overboard. With no other boats in sight, he recalls, "I was like, 'Oh, boy, we've got a problem here.'"
As Ferguson hollered instructions, Alex managed to cut the engine and throw him a life cushion. But even without power, the boat was drifting away far faster than the 5'7", 230-lb. Ferguson could swim. He yelled to drop anchor, but the kids couldn't lift it, nor could they figure out how to work the radio. "It was kind of scary," says Alex, a third-grader at James Marlowe Elementary School. "But I knew how to call 911." Grabbing his uncle's cell phone, Alex reached the Pasco County Sheriff's office, where a dispatcher talked him through restarting the engine and steering the boat toward his uncle, who was now some 50 yards away. But Alex, at 3½ feet tall, couldn't see over the console. So Katie, perching on the bow, peered ahead and gave hand signals to guide him. "Uncle Craig was so far away," she says. "But I shouted to him, 'We're coming!' "
After nearly 45 minutes of floating and praying, Ferguson had nearly given up hope. Then he looked up and saw his saviors. "I could hardly believe it," he says. A cool-headed Alex maneuvered to his uncle, put the boat into neutral and tossed a line that Ferguson used to haul himself aboard. In the wake of the rescue New Port Richey's townspeople presented the kids with the keys to the city. "Everyone was asking me for my autograph," says Katie. "My friend James asked me to write my name on a piece of paper and tape it to his head." Despite their ordeal, the siblings look forward to future expeditions with Ferguson. With one caveat: "Next time," says Alex, "we'll make him wear his life jacket."
Gabriel Gherle and Inoke Waqavesi
They brave an inferno to pull twin preschoolers from the brink of death
Sofia Monteiro was hysterical. As a fire engulfed her rented Sacramento home on Jan. 18, she led two of her children by the hand through dense smoke, thinking that the other two were right behind her. But once outside she was horrified to see only Raquel, 5, and Isabelle, 3. Her 4-year-olds, Ricardo and Rosalia, were still in the house. "My twins!" screamed Monteiro, now 26. At that, Inoke Waqavesi, a pastor at the Arena Fijian Assembly of God across the street, ran to the scene. Finding the front door blocked by flames, he raced to the back only to be met by a burst of black smoke. "I couldn't see more than a foot in front of me," says Waqavesi, 31. He kicked in the twins' first-floor window and groped for signs of life. "Just as I was about to pull out," the pastor says, "I felt a leg." It was Rosalia, unconscious on her bed; when he hauled her through the window she was "absolutely limp."
Just then, Romanian immigrant Gabriel Gherle appeared; he had been installing a roof when he saw the smoke. "One of my babies is still inside!" Sofia cried. Gherle, 26, punched through a front window and crawled across the bedroom. Overcome, he dove outside, sprayed himself with a garden hose and pulled it with him as he climbed in the already broken back window. After 30 seconds he felt Ricardo's foot, hosed down the tot and carried him to safety as firefighters arrived. Ricardo was briefly in a coma, but both twins have fully recovered. "If my kids had not survived, I would be in an insane asylum," says a tearful Monteiro. Adds husband Richard, 40, a recycling-firm manager who was at work during the fire: "Now I have two new brothers."
And Sacramento has a new fireman. Gherle, who has been working in construction, starts training next summer. "I was considering it after Sept. 11," he says. "But it really stuck to me after this. This changed my life."
Trusting her instincts, she tails the kidnapper of a 12-year-old girl—and gets help
On Jan. 16 Megan Van Cleave was walking home from school in Clarkston, Wash., when Brian L. Nollette Jr., 25, forced her at gunpoint into the back of his Ford Crown Victoria. The 12-year-old might have wound up a heartbreaking headline if Kim Heimgartner, 33 and co-owner of a general store, hadn't been driving by with her daughter Jackie, 6. Heimgartner (who also has a son, Clint, 10, with hunting-guide husband Greg, 36) didn't see the gun. "But in my gut," she says, "it just didn't seem right."
As darkness fell, she followed Nollette out of town in her SUV, playing an eight-mile game of cat and mouse on winding, desolate roads while she alerted police on her cell phone. Megan, meanwhile, asked her captor what was going to happen to her. Met with silence, she told him that the next day was her sister's birthday and that she was hoping to buy her balloons.
Heimgartner kept up her pursuit until the cops closed in. When he saw flashing lights, Nollette stopped the car. "He said, 'I'll make you a deal. Since tomorrow's your sister's birthday, get out and get away as fast as you can,'" Megan says. "I ran like crazy."
After arresting Nollette, police found in his car what they identified as a torture kit, including wirecutters, duct tape and a set of knives. Convicted of kidnapping, he was sentenced to 13-plus years in prison.
"What would have happened if Kim hadn't listened to her gut?" asks Megan's father, Rick, 36, a paper-mill manager. Says Heimgartner: "I'm nosy. But this time it paid off."
A vet saves a downed pilot—and millionaire—from a watery grave
Millionaire Jack Roush could have celebrated April 19, his 60th birthday, any way he wanted—but crashing a light plane into a lake wasn't quite what he had in mind. Thanks to game warden and retired Marine sergeant major Larry Hicks, however, the NASCAR mogul went home to Michigan with a gift even he couldn't buy: his life.
A married father of three, Roush was taking a pal's Air-Cam plane for a spin near Troy, Ala., when he flew into some power lines and plummeted into murky Palos Verdes Lake. Hicks, 52, saw the crash from his living room. While his wife, Donna, 53, called 911, the Vietnam vet's search-and-rescue training kicked in. He took a small motor-boat to where a battered wing poked above the surface and plunged in. "It took me two dives to find Jack," says Hicks. Roush wasn't breathing, but Hicks managed to revive him with CPR.
Hicks has received a number of honors for his courage—and Roush has showered him with presents of clothes, tools and free trips to the races. Still, the father of two, who is in remission from cancer of the nose and larynx, considers his own survival to be as miraculous as Roush's. Just two months ago, doctors advised Donna to keep his will handy. "Maybe I was supposed to be here," he says, "because of Jack."
Coming to the aid of a pilot in trouble, a quick-witted sixth-grader proves he's got the right stuff
Randy Lehfeldt had no idea that anything was wrong when he took off in his ultralight plane on the morning of Nov. 3. But minutes later a man ran into the office of tiny Redlands (Calif.) Municipal Airport, screaming that one of the plane's wheels had fallen off as Lehfeldt left the ground. The 40-year-old electrician and amateur pilot—taking a short hop in his flimsy one-seater, which has no radio—faced death if he tried to make a normal landing. "I was a little panicked," recalls airport staffer Char Armstrong. Not so her volunteer underling, aviation buff Dustin Baker, 12.
The sixth-grader ran outside to find the plane's bicycle-style wheel lying on the runway. First he asked Armstrong, 43, to help him scrawl a message—LANDING GEAR OFF—on a sheet of construction paper and wave it in Lehfeldt's direction. When that didn't work, Baker shouted at Armstrong to call fire-and-rescue, then grabbed the errant wheel and jumped into the airport's emergency vehicle, a 1972 GMC truck. "I didn't stop to think I shouldn't be driving," says Baker, whose only road time had been with his dad in the desert near their Yukipa home. Joined by Armstrong, he floored it down the runway.
As Lehfeldt approached, Baker switched on a revolving emergency light and jumped on the truck's hood, where for 10 minutes he frantically waved the lone wheel. Lehfeldt spotted the boy and was able to slow his plane enough to land safely. "He hit the ground and spun out," says Baker, "but he was okay." Says Lehfeldt: "Dustin's a hero in my eyes." And in those of Baker's parents, businessman Steve, 43, and homemaker Lita, 34. "We've always been extremely proud of him," says Steve. "He's a 45-year-old trapped in a 12-year-old's body."
Burning rubber in her wheelchair, she chases down a purse snatcher
At Fry's supermarket in Phoenix on April 24, 58-year-old Mae Fields had turned to pick out collard greens when her purse was snatched from the cart. Police say Sheila McCarthy, 24, pinched her wallet, credit cards and $84—almost everything Fields had. Luckily, Melinda Haggan was selling pencils outside. A grandmother of 13, Haggan, 48, gave chase, catching up as McCarthy allegedly tossed the wallet. "Hey, miss!" Haggan cried—then sprayed her with Mace. When the younger woman fell to her knees, Haggan dragged her by the hair to the store (McCarthy was ordered to undergo counseling). Says Haggan: "I thought, 'How dare she?'"
So much for the mundane details. What clinched a Phoenix Police certificate for Haggan was that she's a one-legged paraplegic confined to a wheelchair—albeit one souped up by her grandson to reach 18 mph, twice normal speed. A sheriff's daughter born in Waco, Texas, Haggan has never shrunk from harm's way: At a 1981 party the onetime exotic dancer jumped in when she saw a teen aim a .45 at a 12-year-old girl. Haggan took the bullet, which struck her spine, paralyzing her below the waist. Then, in 1988, her now-deceased second husband beat her so severely that doctors were forced to amputate her left leg. Having raised five children on odd jobs and disability payments, she recently took up pencil sales.
Whenever Fields, a teacher of the mentally handicapped, comes by, she drops money into Haggan's cup. "It was amazing that she would go to the lengths she did," she says. Haggan appreciates the gesture—though she can take care of herself. Ask Sheila McCarthy.
Mary Whitehead and Bob Hughes
A homeless mother and a TV cameraman risk their lives to pull a woman from her exploding truck
Doris Householder was tired—so tired that after working the night shift as a bank courier in St. Louis, she fell asleep at the wheel of her red Chevrolet pickup and plowed into the concrete base of a traffic sign. With a deafening boom, her truck burst into flames. "When I woke up, I could see four guys yelling to each other, 'Get away from the truck! It's going to blow up!' I'm screaming 'No! Help! Don't let me burn alive!'" says the married mother of five, who recently became a grandmother at 35. "Then I heard, 'It's okay, we're here!' And I see this black woman out the window."
It was Mary Whitehead, 31. A homeless mother of three, she had spent the previous night at an Econo Lodge and stopped at a nearby Phillips 66 to buy her daughter Kierra a Slushee for her 11th birthday. "I had nothing else to give her," she says. With her was Bob Hughes, 46, a local TV news photographer who'd heard about the accident on his police scanner. As they pulled Householder out of the window "I saw her foot hanging from the bone," Hughes says. Seconds later the pickup exploded. Hughes used a fast-food bag as a tourniquet (surgeons later reattached the severed foot), and Whitehead comforted her until EMS arrived. "Bob kept me from bleeding to death." she says. "Mary kept me from freaking out to death."
Hughes deflects credit. "I just hope someone would do that for me or my wife," he says. For Whitehead, who suffers from bipolar disorder, the rescue transformed her life. Area residents showered her with $17,000 in donations, and in August a nonprofit group found the family a five-bedroom ranch house. Now working toward her GED, Whitehead hopes to study child psychology in college. "I've been dealt a crazy hand in life," she says, "but this hand's getting better."