Shortly after midnight last September 22, Cory Elliott and two friends were standing on 11th Street on Gary's west side, chatting good-naturedly. The weather was warm and the conversation, about nothing in particular, had been going on for more than an hour. Several neighbors on the block had joined in earlier, then left for their own homes.
Suddenly there was a muffled explosion, and flames shot from the rear of a frame house across the street. Elliott, a 29-year-old bricklayer, ran to the front door only to find it locked. He knew a father and three children were inside, so he kicked in the door. He was greeted by a cloud of blinding smoke and the sound of children crying. He plunged into the darkness, found one of the kids lying on the floor, carried him out, and applied CPR for a few minutes. Then, trying to hold his breath, he went back in the house looking for the others. As he got farther in he could see the father, a man named Clem Russell, on the floor near the kitchen, his body over one of the other children. Neither was moving and fire seemed to be everywhere around them.
Cory Elliott went into the fire. He bent low, grabbed Russell under the shoulders, and slowly dragged him and his son across the floor toward the front door. He felt himself starting to lose consciousness, but he kept tugging at the two, inching slowly and painfully to safety. Just two feet from the door Elliott passed out and fell atop Russell.
Meanwhile Russell's brother Charles, who lived across the street, arrived on the scene with a wet towel. He probed into the smoke, saw the three, and pulled them out one by one, onto the front porch. Elliott came to almost immediately and tried to go back in. "The kids!" he said. "Gotta get the kids!" Fire equipment and ambulances arrived, and fire fighters, dressed in protective gear, entered the house and found the third child. The victims were taken to Saint Mary's Hospital in Gary. The three children survived, but their father died eight days later from the severe burns he sustained.
Cory Elliott suffered burns over 70 percent of his body, almost all of them third-degree, and his lungs and trachea were thoroughly blackened and badly damaged by his inhalation of smoke and fire. He was flown by helicopter later in the day to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, where the doctors who examined him gave him a 50-50 chance of survival at best. But survive he did. And around Christmastime last year, Chicago newspapers and television stations featured upbeat stories on Cory Elliott: the hero, the man who sacrificed himself for others. There were shots of Elliott, by then a survivor of nine skin-graft operations, in his hospital bed, his face covered with something like a ski mask.
"When I heard those kids crying," he told reporters, "I couldn't leave them." And there were other pictures of him back home in Gary, for only the second time since the fire, holding his year-and-a half-old son on his lap.
After the holidays he would go back to Loyola for more treatment, then to an Indianapolis convalescent center for therapy, and finally back to Gary for a recuperation that is expected to take years. Of course, as the media made clear, Cory Elliott will never be quite the same again.
As I pondered those accounts, a baffling question kept coming back: Why did he do such a thing? Why did he enter that smoke-filled building, then go back and stay with the task when he had to know his own body was burning? What would drive a human being to such lengths? Was it bravado, friendship, some deep-seated instinct, incredible strength of character? Or what?
Cory Elliott's rescue effort was by no means unprecedented in human affairs. One need search no further than the pages of the Reader's Digest or the daily newspapers to find similar accounts of daring interventions. Take Omaha businessman Darwin Nessen, who was recently awarded a Carnegie Medal for heroism. While driving down a Nebraska interstate, he saw a tractor-trailer crash into a concrete support pillar, pinning the unconscious driver inside. He leapt out of his car and tried to pull the man from the cab as burning fuel spread around the wreckage. He was unsuccessful at first but kept at it--sustaining burns himself--until he extricated the man, whose clothing and hair were already on fire. He beat out the flames, pulled the driver clear, and waited for the arrival of the ambulance.
Or consider the extraordinary actions of Gregory Ysais, an electronics technician who was hiking in the mountains near Santa Ana, California, when he heard a woman scream nearby. She told him a mountain lion had just grabbed her five-year-old daughter by the head and dragged her into the brush. Ysais followed the trail and within moments confronted the animal, which was still holding the girl in its mouth. He broke off a tree limb and poked it at the lion and yelled until it dropped its prey. Then he stepped between the child and the lion and swung his makeshift weapon. The lion backed off. The girl suffered a fractured skull and deep lacerations but survived.
And there's Ray Blankenship, awarded a Coast Guard Silver Lifesaving Medal for his rescue of a girl who had fallen into a flooded drainage ditch near her home in Andover, Ohio. She was being swept along so fast he couldn't pull her out, so he plunged into the torrent himself, grabbed the girl and caught hold of a rock only a few feet before the ditch emptied into a huge underground culvert. Blankenship's action was considered especially newsworthy because he cannot swim.
Why do people do these things? As often as not, their struggles end tragically, with both victim and would-be rescuer perishing in flame or water. Accounts of people drowning in half-frozen Lake Michigan or some Park District lagoon while trying to save a friend or a stranger--or a dog--have become almost routine in the local media each winter.
The common perception seems to be that heroes are people with a little more nobility, a little more nerve, than the rest of us; their feats in times of crisis are reckless but consistent with their better-than-average moral constitutions. The very fact that medals and honors are lavished on such people attests to society's recognition of their superior virtue. Lesser souls are encouraged to wonder with admiration at their greatness.
Cory Elliott is five feet ten inches tall and weighed 187 pounds when he kicked down the door on 11th Street. (He has lost 30 pounds since.) He was an especially handsome young man, with 18-inch biceps, a result of his years as a bricklayer and tuck-pointer. Some of his friends said they weren't all that surprised when they heard what he did. "Yeah, that sounds like Cory," said an old neighborhood associate. "He would be one to put himself out for others."
Cory's mother, Shirley Hunt, confirmed this view--at least in part. Of her four children, she said, Cory (the third child) took the most chances; he never wanted to lose at anything. But as she described him, he seemed as foolhardy as he was brave. "He was always the hardest to handle," explained Hunt, 51, a Gary nurse who raised her family almost single-handedly. "Cory was a ruffian."
She separated from her husband when Cory was a baby, then remarried when he was a teenager. Cory resented his stepfather, she said, argued constantly, refused to go to church, and started getting into trouble. He cut high school classes a lot; eventually he dropped out of school.
His mother, a taskmaster who acknowledged popping her son "upside the head" regularly during those rebellious times, decided to take action. Gary's west side was a hotbed of gang activity--the Ivanhoe Bandits, the Gangsteroos--and although he had not become a formal member, she believed he would soon be sucked into the world of dope and violence. Through threats and intimidation, she got him to enroll at the age of 16 in the Western Kentucky State Vocational School. Few predicted he would stay; he despised the exile. But he stayed for four years, earning a graduate-equivalency degree and certificates in carpentry and masonry. He stayed, at least at first, because he did not want to face his mother's wrath. "She's always been a tough disciplinarian," he said. "She has a way of beating you down."
In 1988, Elliott announced his intention to marry. "I didn't think he was ready," said Shirley Hunt. "He didn't seem mature. He acted like a big kid--everything was playful with him. And no sense of responsibility! He never saved any money--spent it mostly on his car." She had a long talk with him about her concerns, and he agreed, she said, with just about everything: "He knew I was right, but he wasn't man enough to tell the young lady."
So the marriage took place, and about one year later Elliott's wife, Vanessa, filed for divorce. By then she was pregnant. When their son Darius was born, she got custody. Elliott was free to resume his carefree bachelor existence.
Seen from this narrow perspective, his actions on that fateful September night lose some of their luster. He was there, and he reacted in a characteristically impulsive manner. He dashed into the inferno with neither heroic intent nor thought of consequence.
Yet this scenario does not ring entirely true. Granted, impulse could propel him through that door and into the smoke--once. But those first seconds in the heat would have a sobering effect on anyone, especially a freewheeling, somewhat irresponsible young man. What then explains why he went back into the flames, this time to seek out the others? At the very least, there is a certain irony in the picture of a man still fearful of being beaten down by his mother marching resolutely into a living hell.
In his book Rescues: The Lives of Heroes, journalist Richard Lesy tries to find the common denominator in nine seemingly ordinary people who have done amazing things. The actions of a few of them parallel those of Cory Elliott. One night, Tim Mosher, a recently fired New York City cabdriver and unsuccessful screenwriter, heard loud noises in the apartment above his. He investigated and came upon a man armed with a butcher knife who had just slashed the throat of a young tenant in the building and was apparently about to rape her. Mosher demanded that he release the struggling woman. She managed to break free and ran down the hall, while Mosher tried to disarm the assailant. In the battle, Mosher suffered a nearly fatal stab wound in the chest. He survived, as did the victim. The New York papers heralded Mosher as a samaritan.
Lesy also devotes attention in his book to the youthful Curtis Sliwa. Years before he founded the Guardian Angels, the 15-year-old Sliwa came upon a burning apartment building while on his job as a newspaper delivery boy. He raced into the building, yelling and knocking on doors. He led confused people out, gave his coat to an old man, and returned to the building several times to make sure no residents remained. Then Sliwa, who was not seriously injured, returned to his paper route. He too was loudly proclaimed a hero by the press and even earned an audience with President Nixon.
To determine motivation, Lesy peered into the histories of his heroes and came up with an interesting, somewhat convoluted theory: that all his subjects were flawed individuals who performed their deeds because of their weaknesses, not in spite of them. "Seen from a distance," he writes, "heroism appears to be an act of self-sacrifice; experienced from within, it is an act of self-reclamation. The hero rescues his own self as he rescues another. Heroes are able because they are disabled; generous because they know they're selfish; fearless because they know they're cowards. They succeed because of all the times they've failed; they win because of all their losses. Heroism is a dialectic. All the bad a hero knows about himself collides in his conscience with all the good he hopes to be." And from that upheaval comes the great moment of self-giving.
Until he saved the woman, says Lesy, Mosher's life had been "a series of traps and bafflements, interspersed with appeals to women old enough to be his mother. . . . Failure and frustration were the cause of his actions; they enabled him to act. If he hadn't been so unhappy, if he hadn't felt so trapped, he wouldn't have acted. Because he needed to be saved, he saved someone else."
Sliwa, he says, had spent so much time running from neighborhood bullies that he had developed an ulcer; his family life was less than ideal; his attempts to be a community environmentalist met with rejection and ridicule. "Sliwa was a kid with a fault line down the center. The tension between the halves and the need to resolve the tension impelled him to act. To save lives and cleanse the world, to act rather than be acted upon, to deny weakness by developing strength, to prove he was ordinary by doing something extraordinary--the push and pull of these motives, like rods and linkages of an engine, propelled him to act."
Perhaps Cory Elliott also had a fault line down his center, but it is nowhere near as obvious as that of Lesy's anxiety-ridden subjects. His failure at marriage and his somewhat turbulent adolescence notwithstanding, Elliott appears to be a rather normal human being, with nothing special to apologize for or anguish over. Nor did he have any long-unattained goals pricking his conscience. On the night of the fire, he was feeling pretty good about his past and his future.
After his graduation from vocational school, Elliott was unable to find work in recession-stricken Gary, whose perpetual shroud of smoke hangs over the environs like a denser and more noxious London fog. So he moved to sunny Colorado Springs, where he found work immediately as a mason, marveling at the $4 million "log cabins" he was helping erect. "I loved it out there," he said. "Beautiful country, good money."
In the mid-1980s he returned to Gary, only because he missed his family and friends. He did not stay long, since even $150-a-week jobs as a housepainter proved hard to find. So he went to Denver, worked on shopping mall construction, then hooked up with a firm building miniature golf courses in Arizona, Tennessee, and Florida. Take-home pay was $500 to $600 a week. In 1988 he won a job with a northern Indiana tuck-pointing and bricklaying firm, working on substantial projects in the Chicago area and making $20 an hour. "Man, I love construction," he said. "I could carry two 90-pound bags of concrete at one time--no problem. And just to see a building going up and to be able to say when it's finished, yeah, I did that!"
Meanwhile, a relationship was developing between Elliott and a young Gary woman who had two children of her own. People agreed they were good for each other. He seemed to be maturing, thinking more seriously about the future, maybe even marriage.
If Elliott had flaws, they appeared to be no deeper than those in millions of other Americans--and probably not as deep as the ones found in many of his 29-year-old Gary contemporaries. Last September 22, he was not aware of being in any special need of salvation.
For centuries historians and philosophers have expressed wonder at the heroic actions of seemingly ordinary people in moments of peril. But only since the 19th century has the phenomenon been subjected to scientific scrutiny. Pioneer sociologist Emile Durkheim studied the characteristics of "altruistic suicide": the freewill sacrifice of one's own life for another. In recent years, the most concentrated work on altruistic suicide and altruism in general has come from Harvard University sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, who is best known for his exhaustive analyses of insect societies, including a recent seven-and-a-half-pound volume on ants.
Wilson finds great amounts of extreme, often suicidal altruism in lower forms of life--like bees, which readily launch kamikaze attacks against intruders, and termites, which spray a sticky fluid at enemies, inevitably trapping themselves as well as their enemies. In more developed creatures he finds less and less altruistic behavior. Cats, chickens, wolves, eagles, and monkeys, for example, are relentlessly egocentric.
But in humans, the species perched at the top of the animal kingdom, altruism reappears to a surprisingly high degree. Why? In a complex argument, Wilson explains that it's a combination of culture and genes interacting over many centuries. Culture supplies the disposition and the social sanctions, but the most powerful drive behind human altruism comes from the genes. The tendency toward self-sacrifice has evolved through the process of natural selection.
In his book On Human Nature, he calls the most prevalent kind of self-giving "soft-core altruism." The altruist "expects reciprocation for himself or his closest relatives. His good behavior is calculating, often in a wholly conscious way, and his maneuvers are orchestrated by the excruciatingly intricate sanctions and demands of society. The capacity for soft-core altruism . . . has evolved primarily by selection of individuals and [is] deeply influenced by the vagaries of cultural evolution."
This kind of doing good is in fact the glue that holds civilization together, argues Wilson. It inspires everything from the storekeeper's "thank you, have a good day" to Mother Theresa's life of dedication to the starving castoffs in the streets of Calcutta. In all such activities, the do-gooder anticipates some kind of payoff: a repeat customer in the case of the storekeeper, eternal union with Jesus in the case of Mother Theresa.
More intriguing to Wilson and far more difficult to understand is "hard-core" altruism: "The bestower expresses no desire for equal return and performs no actions leading to the same end." It is a "set of responses relatively unaffected by social reward or punishment." Yet it too is explained by a relationship between culture and genes, nurture and nature.
One would expect that hard-core altruism, if genetically transmitted, would decrease over the centuries, since people with that disposition frequently perish or suffer grievous injury in their selfless efforts and are thus unable to pass on their altruistic genes to offspring. Not so, says Wilson, basing his conclusions on the hard-core doings of ants and bees. When hard-cores sacrifice themselves for others, they do so almost exclusively on behalf of their own immediate or extended family members. Thus they protect their kin, many of whom presumably share that hard-core gene and survive to pass it on to the next generation. In human society, explains Wilson (basing his conclusions on studies of various ethnic groups), hard-core altruism "serves the altruist's closest relatives, and declines steeply in frequency and intensity as relationship becomes more distant."
Whatever may be said about Elliott, it is clear that his was an act of hard-core altruism. He had no time to calculate what he might get out of it and certainly did not weigh whether there was any proportion between the good he could accomplish and the injury he might suffer. He seized the initiative suddenly, fiercely, almost instinctively, like a bee determined to ward off a dangerous foe. One can only speculate about the makeup of his genes, whether he has inherited an inclination for self-sacrifice. That is certainly possible.
But in one respect his conduct deviates markedly from the norms proposed by Edward Wilson. Clem Russell and his children were not related to Elliott, nor were they even longtime friends. They were at best acquaintances. Russell, who was 37, worked at a local car wash that Elliott had been frequenting after work to have his beloved Camaro Z-28 beautified. On warm evenings they and a few other men hung around the car wash after it closed or congregated near Russell's home a few blocks away.
Elliott said he liked Clem Russell, a divorced man raising his three sons by himself. "He was a good person," he said, "always talking about his kids. And I liked the kids too. Just nice people, you know?"
I asked Elliott if he went into that house because of his feeling for Russell and the children. Was there a kind of unofficial kinship that had developed over the summer? He looked suprised, almost insulted. "No," he said, "I would have gone in there no matter who was inside. They were people, so I had to do it. I didn't have a choice."
Psychologists speak of the human mind's capacity to so concentrate on a single goal or idea that it blocks out every other consideration. It is the kind of mechanism that can cause one person to commit murder over a 25-cent unpaid debt and another to race into a burning building regardless of the consequences.
"In a given moment that thought can become the central focus of your life," said Dr. Sidney Weissman, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. "That compelling thought can represent your whole sense of yourself as a human being, as a person. The ideal of who one is is captured in that moment, and there is a denial, a disavowal of every other circumstance." So focused is the mind, said Weissman, that the person feels enormous power, an ability to overcome all obstacles; every element of danger is simply blocked out.
Weissman, director of outpatient and emergency psychiatry at the Loyola Medical Center, said there is no way to predict who will respond in such concentrated fashion. The bragging extrovert may be rendered impotent at the critical moment, while the meek, self-effacing soul may react suddenly with incalculable resolve. Sergeant Alvin York, the World War I Congressional Medal of Honor winner, is the perfect example of a seemingly unheroic person who nevertheless somehow focuses his whole being into feats of self-sacrificing bravery in a period of crisis.
Weissman did not treat Elliott at the hospital, but he said he suspects the presence of children in that burning house may have helped him fixate so tightly on the task at hand. When children are involved, "There's often a different sense of responsibility and caretaking," he said. "A person may take on an immense risk even though there's absolutely no gain to oneself."
Ultimately, he admitted, psychologists remain baffled by such occurrences. "This sort of thing is always unique--unique to this person and this setting." Even if he were to engage Elliott in long-term psychoanalysis, noted Weissman, he would not expect to come up with a coherent explanation. "At best we might have a conjecture," he said. "Never would I be able to say, 'I understand.'"
When the explosion took place on 11th Street (the cause is still under investigation by Gary authorities), Elliott's two companions ran around the house toward the rear, where smoke was billowing out. One of the men broke a window, and in the process severely cut his arm. Without a moment's hesitation, the other man took him to his car and drove off to the hospital for emergency aid. Elliott did not know it, but he was totally on his own as he entered the house.
He could see nothing at first but smoke, and intense heat poured out at him. He then realized that by bending low, he could breathe a little and see a short distance ahead. When he recalls that night, he always remembers vividly the crying of a child--not a scream or a moan--just a little cry coming from somewhere in the recesses of that house. That cry galvanized his emotions, he said, emboldened him into action.
The first person he came upon was nine-year-old Terrence Russell, lying unconscious in the living room. "The smoke was real bad," said Elliott, "but the heat was the worst--just like a terrible hot oven or furnace. I had to get the kid out or he'd have cooked for sure."
He carried Terrence out and quickly revived him using the CPR technique he learned in high school. Then he was back in the house, moving through smoke and flame toward the two bodies near the kitchen. Elliott said he was well aware of what was happening to him as he tugged at the inert forms on the floor, Clem and his youngest son, five-year-old Clem Jr. "Those flames were reaching out, licking at me, eating me up," he said. "I knew that. I don't think I was in any kind of trance or anything. I hollered, I screamed, I cried. I thought if I don't get out of here I'm gonna die myself!"
Still, he didn't get out. He shook off the pain and kept to the task. What was he thinking? I asked him. "Just that I had to do it," he said, "that I had lived 29 years and I had experienced a lot of life. But the kids hadn't had their chance yet. They deserved a chance, so I couldn't leave them even though I knew I was passing out."
He collapsed just inside the front door, and the three would have undoubtedly died right there if Charles Russell had not arrived and pulled them to safety.
"I could see they were pretty badly burned," said Charles Russell, "but Clem and Cory both came to real quick. They wanted to go back in and get Nathan." However, by then fire fighters had found eight-year-old Nathan, who sustained severe burns, and brought him out. "My brother Clem walked to the ambulance," said Charles Russell, "and I thought he would make it. But he lived only about a week. He was hurt worse than we thought."
Elliott kept asking about the children as he was carried on a stretcher to the ambulance and rushed to the hospital. Thirteen hours later, when his mother finally saw him at the Loyola Medical Center, she was stunned. "I've been a nurse for 28 years," she said, "and I never saw anything that bad. At first I didn't recognize my son. He was all bandaged up and his head was swollen up about four times normal size and all distorted. He couldn't see and they had tubes down his throat, so he couldn't talk."
Shirley Hunt left the room convinced this was a case of mistaken identity. She returned minutes later and looked at Elliott's exposed right foot, the only part of his body she could clearly see. "I knew my own son's foot," she said. "That's when I broke down."
She spoke to him softly, and after a time realized that he was conscious and trying to communicate a message. They devised a laborious method of spelling out a few words. She would recite the alphabet letter by letter, and he would nod when she reached the letter he wanted. When deciphered at last, his message was, "Are the children OK?"
There is another explanation for Cory Elliott's heroism that is older and more profound than those offered by psychology, biology, or sociology (though in some ways it is related to all of them). It is grounded in an insight that is at the heart of the world's great religions: despite appearances, we are all one--one with each other, one with the world in which we live. That concept is frequently mouthed as a noble thought, a remote, poetic ideal that has little to do with real life. Only occasionally--perhaps in moments of incredible stress--does it seem to clearly be the way things really are.
"This thou art," Hindus are taught to say as they meditate on all the beings of the world. "Do you not know that you are all parts of one body?" Saint Paul reminds the early Christian converts. "Curb your ego" and blend in with the whole of creation is a central tenet of Buddhism.
The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was much impressed with Eastern religion, tried to explain this insight in secular terms. A human being's sense of separateness or apartness from all other persons is actually an illusion, he claimed. It is caused by the conditions of time and space in which we live; all reality is of a single piece. Therefore, all contentiousness, whether in the form of envy at another's achievements or hatred directed at a rival or warfare with another tribe or nation, is absolutely purposeless and ultimately self-destructive. To view the world as us-versus-them is to completely misconstrue reality as it is. Yet most mortals, said Schopenhauer, cling to that precious illusion, dooming themselves to lives of dissatisfaction and misery.
The goal is to break out of the dream world. When a person, he wrote, "no longer makes the egotistical distinction between his person and that of others, but takes as much interest in the sufferings of other individuals as in his own and therefore is not only benevolent in the highest degree but even ready to sacrifice his own individuality whenever such a sacrifice will save a number of other persons, then it clearly follows that such a person, who recognizes in all beings his own inmost and true self, must also regard the infinite suffering of all suffering beings as his own, and take on himself the pain of the whole world. . . . Knowledge of the whole, of that nature of reality-in-itself . . . becomes a quieter of all and every willfullness."
Adopting that insight as a regular, daily state of mind is extremely difficult, requiring great discipline and perseverance, said Schopenhauer. It is only achieved by true ascetics. More common, he believed, is the sudden, momentary breakthrough of this unifying metaphysical truth at times when it might least be expected: one sees in an existential flash that we are not only our brother's keeper, we are all one body; and one then acts upon that central truth.
In his Public Broadcasting System conversations with Bill Moyers, mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke about this insight and its recurring place in religious story and ritual. A basic doctrine of Christianity is that God became man in Jesus, who then sacrificed himself for the sake of all people. In other words, noted Campbell, even God did not cling to his own ego or separateness but plunged fully into the battered, fragmented world--unto death itself. And out of that condescension, the many become one. Campbell found most interesting the simple explanation of Christian redemption proposed by the 12th-century philosopher Pierre Abelard: Christ came to be crucified in order to awake in mankind the sentiment of compassion for the suffering of life, and so remove the human mind from commitment to the isolated self and personal gain. "The injured one becomes the savior," Campbell said. "It is the suffering that evokes the humanity of the human heart."
Cory Elliott, never an especially religious person, used to attend church, by his own admission, "only once in a blue moon."
"It would have to be a very blue moon," said his mother.
Yet today he expresses a newfound, seemingly genuine attitude of piety. "I'm not supposed to be here," he said. "God gave me another chance. I owe him big for what's happened. That's just the way I see it."
He moves somewhat stiffly around the living room of his girlfriend's apartment, his arms held out straight, away from his body. He is especially grateful for her support. "She's stuck with me through it all," he said, "and it ain't been easy."
He wears a full-length suit of stretch material that covers everything except his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The suit is supposed to promote healing by applying a mild pressure, and he removes it only to shower. His one major complaint some six months after the fire is intense, chronic itching. Elliott is forever rubbing his shoulder, back, or leg against a wall or doorpost trying to get a few seconds of relief.
During his 93 days at the Loyola Medical Center, doctors removed the tips of four fingers on his left hand and the first joint of a finger on his right hand, but he is otherwise relatively intact. Elliott's attitude throughout the long hospitalization, which involved nine operations and severe bouts with pneumonia and gallstones, was "absolutely superb," said Dr. Richard Gamelli, director of the Shock Trauma Institute at Loyola Medical Center. "Cory did not ever complain; the man is one tough son of a bitch!"
Gamelli, who performed all of the surgeries on Elliott, said more will probably be needed, especially reconstructive work on his face and hands. Whether he can ever return to construction work is doubtful, the doctor noted, since his mobility will likely be hindered by the growth of tough scar tissue. He may require "vocational rehabilitation," added Gamelli, but decisions on such matters remain at least a year away. The hospital bills are enormous, approaching $1 million, and a fund has been established to help defray some of the expenses (the Cory Elliott Fund, in care of the Gainer Bank, 504 Broadway, Gary, Indiana 46402).
Elliott's mother said she worries sometimes that her son is taking this traumatic experience too well. "He's just accepting it all in stride," she said, "never feeling sorry for himself. And I wonder, is that real? Is he fibbing to himself?"
Elliott said no, it's just that he feels like "a new Cory," a different person, "maybe a better person" than the one standing on 11th Street that morning. "I tell my friends, don't take life for granted. Anything can happen and you may wake up one morning and not even be able to zip your pants up!"
Would he do it again, knowing the costs? "Sure," he said without hesitation. "If I had to, I'd do it again."
I told him of an incident reported by Joseph Campbell in his discussion of self-sacrifice. Two policemen in Hawaii came upon a young man climbing on a guardrail as he was preparing to jump off a high cliff. One officer rushed to the scene and grabbed the man just as he went over the rail. The two dangled in the air for many seconds, and the policeman would certainly have plummeted to his death with the man if his partner had not arrived in the nick of time and pulled them both to safety. Afterward, reporters asked the heroic officer why he clung to the man, why he forgot everything--his own family, his duty to the job, his hopes and ambitions--for the sake of this suicidal stranger. And he replied, "I couldn't let go. If I had let him fall, I couldn't have lived another day of my life."
"Yes!" said Elliott. "That's exactly the way I felt. I couldn't have faced myself if I hadn't gone in there and done what I could."
As I drove back home on the Dan Ryan Expressway, I tried to imagine what he had felt in that house that fiery morning--that sense of unity and total identification with those around him. The rush hour was in full swing, cars buzzing in and out of the traffic, cutting one another off. Cutting me off! It was so easy to wallow in the old illusions of time and space: me versus them! And it was so hard to imagine what the world would be like if compassion, not rage, were the reigning emotion.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.