WESLEY Autrey is a hero. For once the word cheapened by overuse is the only one that is appropriate.
Mr Autrey was standing on the platform of a New York subway station with his two daughters when he noticed a young man having a fit. He put a pen in the man's mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue.
The 19-year-old film student, Cameron Hollopeter, recovered enough to get to his feet but then staggered and fell backwards off the platform on to the tracks.
Not only was a train approaching, but the subway system has a third rail that carries 600 volts of electricity.
"I had a split-second decision to make," Mr Autrey recalled.
"Do I let the train run him over and hear my daughters screaming and see the blood? Or do I jump in?"
He jumped, holding Mr Hollopeter down between the tracks as the screeching train ran over the top of them. Several carriages rolled over the men before the driver could bring the train to a stop.
"Am I dead?" Mr Hollopeter asked. Mr Autrey replied: "No, we're under the train."
When the 50-year-old construction worker yelled to the people on the platform that they were OK, he heard applause.
The two men had to remain on the tracks for 20 minutes until the power was turned off.
When he spoke to the media later, Mr Autrey still had dirt on his beanie.
And like a true hero he continued on his way. He went to work, converting classrooms into a library at public school 380 - otherwise known as John Wayne Elementary School.
Not surprisingly, he is the toast of New York. The New York Post called him the Subway Superman.
Michael Daly, a columnist for the Daily News, suggested they should rename the John Wayne school "after a real hero".
Mr Autrey is being feted by talk shows and showered with praise.
His rewards include a trip to Disney World and a year's free subway travel.
He has been honoured by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The New York Film Academy, where Mr Hollopeter is a student, has given him $US5000 ($A6340) plus $US5000 scholarships for his daughters, Shuqui, 6, and Syshe, 4. Donald Trump has given Mr Autrey a cheque for $US10,000.
Mr Bloomberg presented him with the city's highest award for civic achievement, calling him "a great man - a man who makes us all proud to be New Yorkers".
Past recipients of the Bronze Medallion have included World War II general Douglas MacArthur, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali.
Before Mr Autrey, the last person honoured was Felix Vasquez, who caught a baby thrown from a burning building in 2005.
Heroism seems to be catching in New York. According to police, a three-year-old boy was caught by two men after falling from the fourth-floor window of an apartment two days after Mr Autrey's feat. CBS television news said that brothers Julio Gonzalez and Pedro Navarez caught the child after spotting him hanging from a fire escape.
"He was coming down pretty hard, so hard that when he landed in my arms my sneaker just flew right off and I fell down to the ground," Mr Navarez said.
The boy bounced off his chest and into the arms of Mr Gonzalez, who also fell down.
"We caught him and the boy's all right, thank God," Mr Gonzalez said.
"When I saw that baby I just ran. I wasn't thinking about anything, I was just thinking about catching that baby."
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said: "This is the week of heroes in New York."