Let Me Speak of Heroes
Heroes — not a word we choose lightly. There are heroes in battles who risk their lives for others and for the greater cause. These are extraordinary heroes, and we rightfully celebrate their glory and often memorialize their lives.
A true hero values others above self. According to Merriam-Webster, a hero symbolizes the ideal of a people or a group. Heroes are ordinary people who do exemplary acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, courage, and love, not seeking fame or fortune and often not wanting their efforts acknowledged. We have many such people in our midst, and I’d like to single out several of them in order to share their recent deeds with you.
George Washington’s Birthday dawned like any Monday. As that day progressed, we knew nothing of the tragedy that would unfold for 32 innocent people and indirectly impact the lives of hundreds, even thousands of others. This group, the guests of an Exploritas program, participated in a learning experience at Archbold Biological Research Station, and later, enjoyed the murals of Lake Placid. On the way back to their hotel, a traffic accident forced the tour bus off the highway, and it rolled over on its side. Two of these travelers died at the scene, one more followed three days later. Everyone was hurt, some critically.
It was one of those moments we’ll never forget. This is certainly the case for Becky Rousch, who was pulled from the bus miraculously uninjured. Becky had the presence of mind to call for help first, and then to call us about what had happened. She had experienced a horrific tragedy, but what she was most concerned about was her fellow travelers. The next morning, as we gathered to formulate a plan for dealing with the crises, Becky was there with the important documents we needed to contact family members. She was there in spite of her own trauma, because she cared about these people and about doing whatever she could to help them. In my book, Becky is a hero.Those injured in the accident were transported to seven hospitals, with the most severe cases ultimately going to Fort Myers, Tampa, Orlando, and Lakeland. The rest were sent to the three hospitals in Highlands County. One of our first tasks was to find out who was where, and then to contact their family members. Chris van der Kaay and Kris Schmidt stepped up to the challenge. By late Monday evening they had located everyone, and Kris began calling families. With help from many others, Kris spent the rest of the week getting information to and from these people from Texas to Massachusetts. She worked practically around the clock with remarkable dedication and empathy for the relatives who were so concerned about their loved ones. Kris and Chris are both heroes. They understood the challenge, and they faced it without hesitation.
Exploritas was incredibly helpful to us sending two experienced people to help and even guide us through the crisis. Michael Zoob arrived from Key West before midnight on the night of the accident. Jeffrey Doretti arrived about 4:30 a.m., and both were with us on Tuesday morning as we developed our emergency response plan. They, too, are heroes along with the executive officers of Exploritas, who spent hours on the phone with us working through all of the complicated and often heartrending issues. We could not have handled this without their assistance.
Immediately after locating each accident victim, one of the most important tasks was getting vital information to the hospitals about their patients. In one case, the hospital did not know the name of the person who had been delivered to its emergency room, but we were able to identify them. Stepping up to the plate big time was our suprema-techy, Anita Kovacs. She created a worksheet with all of the contact and medical information we had on each person along with the hospital information that had been gathered. By the morning after the accident, we had transmitted important information to each hospital about their patients. This was no small task, but Anita was up to the challenge.
For many reasons, we decided to visit each person or family member in the hospitals as soon as possible. They rightly had many questions about insurance, about their belongings, and about their fellow travelers. To help them recover their personal belongings, we needed to know what they lost and get their permission to retrieve it for them. With her nursing background and organizational skills, Leana Revell quickly volunteered to accompany Michael Zoob and Wanita Bates on Wednesday to visit the hospitalized patients. It was a long and emotional day, but they made contact with everyone and accomplished their objectives. On Tuesday, Michael McLeod and Jeffrey Doretti shared the load by visiting everyone in Orlando, Lakeland, and Tampa. These five are true heroes. Their concern for these people was stronger than any hesitation or reluctance to make the trek. They truly made a difference for the injured and their families.
By midweek we were trying our best to reconnect those in the various hospitals with some of their important belongings — glasses, cell phones, credit cards, driver’s licenses, purses, binoculars, jackets, backpacks, cash, and many other items. Unfortunately, we didn’t know where these things were located. Some had been turned over to us by various emergency workers and others who had helped at the scene. Other items were reportedly in possession of the Florida Highway Patrol. We assumed that everything else was still on the bus. Enter master detective extraordinaire, bulldog Keith Loweke. I don’t have enough space or time to adequately explain his many efforts or his perseverance, but he was very successful. We have virtually everything, thanks to Keith with help from many others, and we’re now in the process of returning each item to its owner. Keith Loweke is another of our heroes.
Yes, we do have many heroes around here, just as we did back during the summer/fall of 2004 when three awful storms visited us. Just as we do when ordinary circumstances don’t require extraordinary acts of kindness and resolve. There’s something about this place that is very special, and that is not a word we choose lightly.