Volume 96, Issue 65
Friday, January 24, 2003

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The human instinct for heroism: one man's story

By Ryan Hickman
Gazette Staff

Chris Ryder wasn't supposed to be working at his friend's house that clear September day. He should have been out on the lake in his new boat, but that's how stories like this go.

Ryder stood on the peach and turquoise carpet in front of a wooden podium last Sunday morning in a small basement room of the Delta London Armouries Hotel. The scant gathering in front of him listened while he explained how a normal guy from Succasunna, New Jersey was visiting London in the heart of winter's chill.

He was wearing an ordinary black waffle shirt and pleated khaki pants and used his hands to direct the details of his extraordinary story. It was one of the last nice weekends of the summer season and Chris Ryder decided to go with his girlfriend up to a friend's new place to help him do some work around the house.

"I remember everything as pictures – that's how I have [made] some order [out] of how it occurred," Ryder recalled, concerning the tragic events of Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002.

That was the day he came upon a cleared patch of woods, where a plane had ripped through the trees and lay upside down, as 30-foot flames jumped off a pile of nearby brush ignited by the crash.

Two of the plane's passengers were Michael and Sandy Kirkley, two people embedded in London and Western's civic fabric – Sandy a prominent orthopedic surgeon at the Fowler-Kennedy Sports Medicine Clinic at Western, and Michael, a high-profile Mustangs football alumnus and booster.

The tragic news of their death and the near fatalities of their two sons Colin, 8, and Connor, 5, took a great toll on the London community.

Chris Ryder knew nothing of the Kirkleys when he tossed his tools to the side and sprinted into the woods, after being told a plane had just nose-dived near the house.

The crash site had already attracted some others by the time Ryder approached the plane, belly up, with its passengers trapped inside.

Ryder recalls a particularly large man, who he estimated was around 300 pounds, frozen by the side of the plane in a state of paralysis, eyes locked on a little arm hanging out the side of the aircraft window.

Chris Ryder didn't have time to take a long walk in the snow for this decision and barked at the man to pull it together. Ryder then did the only thing that came to his mind and dropped to his knees, crawling into a small opening around the burning plane.

"I couldn't see anything in there, it was pitch black and I don't know whether I had my eyes open or not, but the smoke was burning my eyes," Ryder explained.

One snapshot that he recalled vividly was a seatbelt. Ryder, who races motorcycles and skydives regularly, squeezed the seatbelt fastener and Colin Kirkley dropped into his arms and the 25-year old-New Jersey steam fitter crawled out backwards to daylight.

"As I went back in for Connor, I heard Colin take his first breathe. It was such a big breathe for such a little guy," Ryder continued, with a faint Jersey accent rolling off his tongue and a tiny quiver in his voice.

Ryder crawled into the smoke and darkness a second time and lugged Connor Kirkley out safely. He even slithered in for a third try, but the seats of the plane were blocking anyone from getting a clear attempt at dislodging Sandy or Michael.

The word "hero" has been kicked around, banged up and misused so frequently that we can hardly comprehend it anymore. That's why Chris Ryder did not hesitate to deny he was a hero. He just did what he had to do.

Ryder may not have envisioned the situation he was put in, he just did what any human being would have instinctively done – or did he?

Dr. James Olson of Western's psychology department explained that humans tend to defuse responsibility when they are surrounded by others, expecting someone else to undertake the risk instead of them.

You can only comprehend your own reaction when fear is staring you right in the eyes.

Chris Ryder stared into the face of human tragedy and reacted the only way that felt natural.

Even though he could not get Mr. and Mrs. Kirkley out, Ryder is at ease with himself, knowing that a safe Colin and Connor was what Sandy and Michael would have wanted. He thinks about the two young boys, whom he has not seen since that life-altering day, regularly and hopes his actions will play a part in them eventually leading a rich life.

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2002 THE GAZETTE