Kendrick Castillo, Joshua Jones, and Brendan Bialy. Riley Howell. Anthony Borges, Peter Wang, and Aaron Feis. Lori Gilbert-Kaye, Oscar Stewart, and Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz. Jesse Lewis. James Shaw Jr. Abdul Aziz. Stephen Willeford and Johnnie Langendorff. Bryan Whittle and Juan Carlos Nazario. Shannon Johnson. And more.
These are heroes.
Collectively, each of them said, “Enough.” They took the fight to killers in mass shootings or they intervened to protect or help or guide others, thinking about others’ safety before their own. In some cases, they used their bodies as human shields. In other cases, they tackled active shooters. They saved lives in the process. Some survived. Others gave their lives.
These are the heroes – of Highlands Ranch STEM school, of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, of Sandy Hook, of a synagogue in California, of a Tennessee Waffle House shooting, of a mosque in New Zealand and a church in Texas. Of course, there are many more.
Hidden beneath the headlines of school shootings and mosque and synagogue and church attacks and terrorist attacks is another reality: Within every tragedy, there is almost always someone else who stands up. People perform heroically in the instantaneous decision-making required by fast-moving, mortal danger. Often, it’s the law enforcement officers who encounter danger in their response (or in the case of Jason Falconer, who stopped a mass stabbing attack at a Minnesota mall, a part-time, off-duty officer). That’s their jobs, of course. They run toward danger as others run out.
In almost every tragedy, it seems, evil unearths good in average people too. A man in a Waffle House in Tennessee grabs a weapon from an active shooter and throws it over a counter. A mother in a California synagogue leaps in front of her rabbi and takes a bullet for him. A man grabs a credit card machine – the first thing he can find – as a gunman approaches a New Zealand mosque, and runs out screaming “Come here!” and then smashes the killer’s windshield with a discarded gun. A student may have told a Columbine shooter that she believes in God. An armed Air National Guard sergeant confronts a gunman at a restaurant, and a combat vet runs screaming at a shooter in a synagogue, preventing more deaths.
We see such heroism in terrorist attacks too. A man in a red bandanna rescues strangers trapped in the World Trade Center and gives his life doing it. The passengers of Flight 93 fight back.
Some of the heroism comes after the carnage from those standing just outside of it: witness, a neighbor outside a Christian Church in Texas who shows up barefoot and chases a killer down a country road, apprehending him, with another citizen motorist.
Here’s a roundup of some of the heroes:
Kendrick Castillo, Joshua Jones & Brendan Bialy
When a shooter entered his Highlands Ranch STEM school classroom, Kendrick Castillo leapt into action. His heartbroken dad, John Castillo, told ABC News his son was a hero. “I want people to know about him,” John Castillo said.
“I know that because of what he did, others are alive, and I thank God for that. I love him. And he is a hero and he always will be,” John Castillo, said to CNN. “He just loved people that much.”
Kendrick’s classmate, Nui Giasolli told CNN that the shooter entered her classroom and pulled out a gun. The students were watching a movie. “Kendrick lunged at him and tried to subdue him. As soon as he said, ‘Don’t you move,’ Kendrick lunged, giving us all enough time to hide under our desks, and the shooter ended up shooting Kendrick,” she said. Other students then also rushed at the student while the rest of the class escaped.
“They are so brave,” she told the network. “They all risked their lives to make sure that 10, 15 of us all got out of that classroom safe and that we were able to go home to our families. … There is nothing greater in this world than these kids willing to do that.”
Brendan Bialy was another student who tackled one of the two shooters that day. “When I spoke to him he was still in shock and primarily concerned with the victims and their families!” his attorney said in a statement.
“He was very defiant at these senseless and horrendous actions. This young man like many of our young youth are compelled by their families, communities, and own internal convictions and strength to act immediately and selflessly. His message is strength to all!”
Bialy is a Marine recruit. “Brendan’s courage and commitment to swiftly ending this tragic incident at the risk of his own safety is admirable and inspiring,” the 8th District Marines said, according to NBC.
“As the trend is now to propagate the name of the shooter, shooters and their intents just kind of glorifies it, if anything inspires other people,” Bialy said to NBC. “So in this happenstance, the absolute legend of the events of yesterday, Kendrick Castillo is the name I think should not go away to the sands of time.”
Also in the group who tackled the shooter: A student named Joshua Jones. “During the shooting, Kendrick Castillo, Brendan Bialy and Joshua Jones ran at the shooter and tackled him, giving their classmates time to take cover and escape. Kendrick Castillo gave the ultimate sacrifice of his own life in the process,” wrote a petition seeking to have all three young men honored. Jones was shot and wounded in the incident.
No one who knew Riley Howell was surprised what he did when a shooter barged into his classroom at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. An ROTC cadet, Howell, 21, tackled the gunman as the shooter opened fire in a classroom, knocking the gunman off his feet.
“He was the kind of person who you knew would take care of you the moment you met him, and he always did. He radiated love and always will. As a friend said, ‘Beautiful souls like Riley are always with us in the way they made life more beautiful,’” his heartbroken family said in a statement.
Riley’s parents, Thomas and Natalie, are expressing great pride in their son. “We are just beyond proud of what he was able to do,” Natalie Henry-Howell, Riley’s mother, told the Today Show. “While kids were running one way, our son turned and ran towards the shooter.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney praised Howell in a news conference.
“He’s an athletically built young man and he took the fight to the assailant… he saved lives doing so. What he did was he took the assailant off his feet, and then the heroes we have here (police officers) were able to apprehend him,” Kerr said.
“When you talk about heroism…the first and foremost hero, as far as I am concerned, and his name is Riley Howell,” the chief added.
Anthony Borges & Peter Wang
Anthony Borges, they say, saved 20 teens. He’s a Venezuelan youth who is haunted by traumatic memories.
When an active shooter showed up at his school in Parkland, Florida, he acted. Here’s what he did: Already wounded by a bullet, Borges “threw himself in front of a classroom door in an attempt to shield other students from flying bullets,” according to NBC Miami, which quoted him as saying, “I want to thank everyone for their support and God too, because it was God who helped me.”
“When he shot me, here on my left leg, I fell. But then I got up little by little, kept crawling and he kept shooting at me while I was closing the door,” Borges said to the television station. He was shot five times “while barricading the door with his body,” says NBC. A teacher who tried to help him died at his side.
“None of us knew what to do. So, he took the initiative to just save his other classmates,” Carlos Rodriguez, another student, told Good Morning America.
He required 13 surgeries, but he survived.
Parkland had other heroes too.
Peter Wang was a freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who was a member of the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program. An online petition says that Wang “was last seen, in uniform, holding doors open and thus allowing other students, teachers, and staff to flee to safety.”
Peter Wang was 15. According to NBC News, the United States Military Academy released a statement, announcing that Wang was admitted to the class of 2025 posthumously.
“It was an appropriate way for USMA to honor this brave young man. West Point has given posthumous offers of admission in very rare instances for those candidates or potential candidate’s (sic) whose actions exemplified the tenets of Duty, Honor and Country,” the statement read, in part.
Aaron Feis was Parkland’s football coach. He gave his life to protect students. “It is with Great sadness that our Football Family has learned about the death of Aaron Feis. He was our Assistant Football Coach and security guard,” Marjory Stoneman football said on Twitter. “He selflessly shielded students from the shooter when he was shot. He died a hero and he will forever be in our hearts and memories.”
“He shielded two kids from being shot. He took the bullets himself,” student Julien Decoste told NBC News.
Lori Gilbert-Kaye & Oscar Stewart
Gilbert-Kaye was inside her synagogue, Chabad of Poway, Calif., on April 27, 2019, when a gunman entered it.
The Times of Israel describes Gilbert-Kaye as a 60-year-old mother who shielded her rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, from harm, jumping in between him and the gunman.
To The Jewish Press, Dr. Ronit Lev said, “Our rabbi … told everyone that she saved his life because she stood in front of him.”
Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Naftali Bennett, told The Jewish Press: “Lori Gilbert Kaye z’l is a Jewish hero, and will be remembered as a hero in Jewish history. She sacrificed her own life, throwing herself in the path of the murderer’s bullets to save the life of the Rabbi.”
According to Daily Caller, Oscar Stewart leapt into action when he saw the gunman. The shooter “dropped his gun and sprinted to his car when he saw Oscar Stewart come barreling toward him, yelling so loud the priest that a neighboring church could hear,” the site reported. He’s a combat vet.
“Get down!” Stewart yelled, the site reported. “You motherf*cker! I’m going to kill you!”
“I heard gunshots,” Stewart said in an interview with Daily Caller. “And everybody got up and started trying to get out the back door, so I — for whatever reason — I didn’t do that. I ran the other way. I ran towards the gun shots.”
Even in children very young, heroism exists. Jesse Lewis, 6, was a student at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Jesse saw his teacher shot, and he “shouted for his classmates to run while the gunman paused to reload and was shot moments later.” He died in the tragedy.
“Jesse died bravely trying to lead other children to safety,” says the Jesse Lewis True Love Movement website. “He ran into the hallway to help when he heard the shots. In our hearts we already knew because that was the way he lived his life – fearless, full of courage and strength.”
“We take comfort in knowing what a brave child he was. His actions were consistent with the way he lived his life; passionately embracing everything, a perfect combination of courage and faith, like a little soldier, his favorite toy. The love we shared was abundant and all encompassing. He slept in his mother’s arms almost every night of his precious life, with her thanking God for him.”
James Shaw Jr.
James Shaw Jr. was a customer at a Waffle House in Tennessee when a gunman entered the restaurant and opened fire. According to police, Shaw, 29, saved lives when he disarmed the gunman, USA Today reported.
According to USA Today, police stated that Shaw “rushed the suspected shooter, disarmed him and threw the assault rifle he was carrying over the Waffle House counter.”
“I don’t really know, when everyone said that, it feels selfish,” Shaw Jr. said to the newspaper. “I was just trying to get myself out. I saw the opportunity and pretty much took it.”
Others would call him something else: Hero.
Abdul Aziz, 48, was described as a hero who saved lives in a deadly shooting spree that unfolded at two mosques in New Zealand.
Aziz “likely saved lives when he engaged the gunman in a cat-and-mouse chase outside the mosque and later grabbed one of the shooter’s own guns that had been tossed to the ground,” reported USA Today.
The gunman had discarded the weapon so Aziz used it to smash his windshield, causing the gunman to flee the scene, saving lives. “I got to be honest it wasn’t me, it was God who saved everybody,” Aziz said. According to PBS, before he smashed the gunman’s windshield, Aziz picked up a credit card machine and confronted the gunman, throwing it at him. He weaved around the parking lot so he wouldn’t be shot. After smashing the gunman’s windshield, Aziz chased the shooter’s car for a time.
“He went after him, and he managed to overpower him, and that’s how we were saved,” another worshiper told PBS.
Stephen Willeford & Johnnie Langendorff
A gunman had just opened fire inside a small church in Texas. Stephen Willeford was a neighbor and he sprang into action when he heard gunshots. He grabbed a gun and ran outside barefoot to confront the killer, reported CNN. Willeford shot the gunman.
“What do you say to the man who stepped up when he heard the gunshots? I’d say he’s a hero,” Wilson County Sheriff Joe Tackitt Jr. told CNN. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. Had he not done what he did, we could have lost more people.”
According to CNN, Willeford flagged down a random motorist, Johnnie Langendorff. The pair then chased the gunman, who was speeding away in a vehicle. The gunman’s car eventually lost control and he was apprehended.
CNN asked Langendorff what he was thinking, and he said, “Nothing. Get him.” Why? “Because that’s what you do, you chase a bad guy.”
Welles Crowther is known as the “man in the red bandanna.” On September 11, 2001, he was in one of the World Trade Center buildings when the terrorists struck. He could have escaped. Instead, he stayed behind, guiding others to safety.
According the New York Times, the 24-year-old equity trader helped at least 10 people to safety.
He made several trips with people up and down stairwells in the smoldering building, eventually dying in it, according to The Times.
When two shooters attacked a county holiday party in San Bernardino, California, Shannon Jones thought of his co-worker.
According to CNN, he shielded her with his body, telling her, “I got you.”
Johnson died in the shooting attack. The co-worker who lived, Denise Peraza, told CNN, “I will always remember his left arm wrapped around me, holding me as close as possible next to him behind that chair. And amidst all the chaos, I’ll always remember him saying these three words, ‘I got you.'”
Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz
After a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz didn’t run away; he rushed forth to help injured people, according to The Independent.
His nephew wrote on Facebook: “I just learned a short while ago that although the shooter travelled within the building looking for victims, Uncle Jerry wasn’t killed in the basement of the building where the congregation was Davening [praying], he was shot outside the room. Why? Because when he heard shots he ran outside to try and see if anyone was hurt and needed a doctor.”
Bryan Whittle & Juan Carlos Nazario
Bryan Whittle told The Oklahoman, “I just feel like I’m just an average guy who had the right tool to help at the right time.”
What he did: When a gunman opened fire in an Oklahoma City restaurant in 2018, Whittle, who was also armed, shot at and neutralized the shooter. Whittle is a master sergeant in the Oklahoma Air National Guard, according to The Air Force Times.
“I just reacted,” the 39-year-old said to the Air Force Times. “I wasn’t thinking about anything other than I had to stop this guy and I’m not going to die here.”
Another man also intervened. He too was armed. Juan Carlos Nazario was a trained security guard who told KWTV that he “just did what I was trained to do to neutralize the situation.”