For Chuck Carbonell, coming to the rescue of others just comes naturally.
Story by Caitlin Johnston
Illustrations by Cameron Cottrill
Produced by Martin Frobisher
The hero’s hands are weathered. Weathered from 58 years of living in Florida and more than three decades of woodworking at his shop in South Tampa. They’re also weathered from throwing punches, prying a gun from a criminal’s hands and pulling a woman from a fiery crash. They’re the hands of a man who has spent his working days restoring damaged furniture and his personal life chasing down bad guys.
It’s not that he seeks these things out. But since childhood, Chuck Carbonell has never been able to stand by and watch an injustice unfold. Something within compels him to act. And in those moments, the hands that work to restore furniture and old cars become the hands that save lives.
Chuck would bristle at that statement. He would swear up and down that he’s no different from you or me. That he does what anybody else would do: risks his own life to save another. But that’s just not the case. Most of us are bystanders. Too scared or busy or selfish to get involved.
But Chuck? As astonishing as it sounds, he has saved a least 11 people from death or great bodily harm.
Medals, accolades and the testimony of a former mayor can prove it. So can newspaper archives, a police report and Carnegie Hero Fund investigators, who vet claims and interview witnesses before bestowing the prestigious award.
Still, after all the lives he has saved or at least made easier, Chuck continues to shy away from the limelight.
“It’s embarrassing for me,” Chuck said, “when they want to call me a hero.”
He has chased down a man who stole a woman’s purse, pulled people from a burning building in Ybor, and, just last year, scooped up a toddler waddling alone down the middle of Armenia Avenue.
“Chuck Carbonell has a knack for being in the right place at the right time,” reads the description of a Tampa Police Department Citizen Award given to Chuck on March 1, 2007. “And this is not his first time playing superhero.”
With his strong build and peppered mustache, he could pass for a firefighter. But Chuck doesn’t go into work every day with the goal of saving others.
No, Chuck’s heroism is of the latent variety. He doesn’t wear a cape or mask. His bravery rests below the surface.
It also leads to a larger question: What makes a hero?
Sept. 24, 1997
Chuck and his wife, Fonda, are driving their son to school shortly after 8 a.m. when they see a man trying to carjack a station wagon on Bayshore Boulevard.
The suspect takes off and, instinctively, Chuck is out of the car, chasing after him.
That right there is the moment that separates Chuck from the rest of us, who either wouldn’t have seen the event or would have kept driving, choosing not to get involved.
But down Bayshore he runs, pursuing the suspect later identified by police as Vincent Ford, 34, past a sandwich shop, toward a white, vine-covered wall of townhomes. Ford scrambles onto the clay tile roof of a garage, and Chuck climbs up after him.
From roof to roof they leap, until they reach a screened-in pool. Seeing Chuck advancing on him, Ford jumps through the screen into the pool.
The only way out is through the two-story townhome, that neither Ford nor Chuck realize belongs to then-Mayor Dick Greco. So, Ford smashes the window of a French door and pushes his body through, severely cutting himself.
Pause here: Even if we were aware enough to notice the carjacking and chase after Ford, would we be brave enough to enter an unknown home with the man who was desperate and unpredictable enough to lead us there?
Chuck follows, never giving it a second thought.
Inside the house, Greco ushers his wife into the closet and arms himself with a 9mm semiautomatic. As the mayor makes his way to the top of the stairs, the first person he sees in the house is Chuck, now in the living room below.
“I stood at the top of the stairs thinking, ‘Well, if somebody comes up, I have to do something,’ ” Greco says. “I was hollering at the top of my voice, ‘What are you doing?’ ”
“I’m chasing a bad guy,” Chuck calls back.
Meanwhile, the other man is trying to escape, leaving a trail of blood along the cream-colored carpet and smeared on the dining room wall.
With no other option, he shatters the glass of the front door, cutting himself further before passing out.
When police arrive, Chuck moves quietly to the sidelines.
“He wanted to make sure we were okay, but otherwise, he never said a word or looked at me for anything,” Greco says. “He doesn’t strike me at all as one to be noticed.”
Feb. 12, 2007
Ten years later, Chuck is once again driving with Fonda when he sees a Tampa police officer struggling with a man on the side of the road.
Officer Steven Metzler has pulled over a car and is attempting to search the driver, 26-year-old Arnaldo L. Hernandez, when things escalate. Hernandez turns belligerent, making desperate attempts to grab Metzler’s gun.
The two struggle violently, the gun shifting back and forth between them.
“He got it a couple times, and I got it back,” Metzler recalls. “I was at the point where I had already decided, ‘I have to shoot this guy.’
“I had just positioned my left thumb and was about to squeeze the trigger, and that’s when Chuck shows up,” Metzler says. “He comes running at us from the front and clearly appears to be a good guy.”
Metzler calls out for Chuck to punch Hernandez in the face, hoping that will knock him out or at least distract him enough for Metzler to regain control of the gun.
Chuck and Hernandez wrestle vigorously on the ground. As Chuck tries to subdue Hernandez, Metzler holsters his gun and begins striking at him with his baton, hitting Chuck a few times in the process. Backup arrives soon after.
“Chuck did a really good thing,” Metzler says. “He could’ve taken the choice of, ‘It’s too dangerous to me,’ when he learned this guy had my gun. He elected, knowing how bad the situation was, to put himself in harm’s way.”
It’s not a choice many of us would have made.
In addition to receiving a Citizen Award from the Police Department, Chuck was awarded the Carnegie Medal, an honor established in 1904 to recognize civilians who perform extraordinary acts of heroism.
Nov. 14, 2011
Chuck and Fonda are driving along Interstate 4 near Lakeland at about 70 mph when the SUV in front of them flips, tumbles off the highway and lands on its roof in a wetland.
A chain of brake lights flash. About a dozen cars pull off the road.
This time, Chuck is like the rest of us, prepared to keep driving. Plenty of others are there to help.
But Fonda screams at him to turn back.
“She’s put me in every one of these situations,” Chuck says. “Every one.”
Along the road, a line of people look out at the havoc. Fire erupts in the engine compartment and spreads to the exposed underbelly of the truck. Inside, Denise Guzman is trapped.
Two men run toward the vehicle, but halfway there, they start to sink in the muck. They free themselves, glance toward the spreading flames, and turn back. Even from the road, bystanders can see Guzman beating on the truck window.
“I saw them coming back and I took off running,” Chuck recalls, yet again making the uncommon choice to act while others paused.
Chuck fights through the mud sucking at his boots and reaches the truck. He pulls the handle of the unlocked door, but it doesn’t give. The sludge is too thick. Putting a foot against the SUV, he yanks the handle again, struggling to pry open the door. The entire time, Guzman, 41, pounds on the window as the blaze spreads.
Here’s the final moment, the one in which it wouldn’t only be understandable, but prudent, to turn back and save your own skin. As Chuck tells it, that thought never crosses his mind.
Finally, the door gives way and Chuck leans headfirst into the truck where flames dance on the dashboard. Unbuckling Guzman’s seat belt, Chuck pulls her from the wreckage and carries her toward the highway.
“I could feel the heat travel along the back of my neck, it was so intense,” Chuck recalls.
A few seconds later, the SUV explodes.
His actions earned him his second Carnegie Medal for heroism. At 58, Chuck is the only living individual to ever have won it twice.
These stories are just three in a lifelong series of altruistic acts. It’s hard not to wonder how one person can be a part of so many different harrowing events.
But like all superheroes portrayed on screen or in print, this story’s hero is not perfect. He has a bit of a criminal record, including several arrests: the first for drugs when he was 32, the last in 2004. Nothing serious.
They’re indiscretions that even law enforcement officers are willing to write off in light of Chuck’s repeated and persistent willingness to help others. Ultimately, the negatives in Chuck’s life amount to nothing, said Metzler, the cop whom Chuck saved during his struggle on the side of the road.
“I don’t know anybody who doesn’t at some point in their life do something wrong,” Metzler said. “You look at all the good he’s done, all the good he did that day. He saved that guy’s life. He could’ve saved my life as well. Somebody had to get shot that day and he stopped it.”
Metzler has heard some question Chuck’s motivations. Is he an adrenaline junkie? A police officer “wannabe” or a vigilante with his own sense of justice?
Metzler just doesn’t buy it.
“He was very humble when we talked afterward,” he said. “He wasn’t trying to exploit the situation for his own benefit.”
Greco, too, said he never got the sense Chuck was looking for glory or personal gain.
“He was a good Samaritan,” Greco said. “And I don’t think he does it for anything other than the fact that he thinks it’s a necessary thing for him to do.”
At dinner one night in Pittsburgh, after awarding Chuck his second Carnegie Medal, retired psychotherapist Sybil Veeder was fascinated by Chuck.
She has served on the Carnegie board for more than 20 years, but Chuck was the first person she has met to ever win the award twice.
She peppered him with questions, eager to understand how he sees the world. Does he understand the magnitude of his actions? How many other times has he risked his life for others? He tried his best to dodge the questions, but she’s keen to know what makes him so different from the rest of us.
If you ask Chuck, he’ll tell you he’s no different at all.
“I don’t think twice about it,” Chuck said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Chuck might be right, it probably is what we should do. But, the fact remains that many of us choose never to get involved.
So what compels one person to act when no one else will?
From Veeder’s observations, Chuck is “naturally altruistic.” He lives with a sort of hyper-awareness that’s about as close to a “spidey sense’’ as humans outside the Marvel universe can get. And his wife, Fonda, is better than just about any sidekick out there, egging him on and supporting him each time.
You might say Chuck happens to be in the right place at the right time with an inordinate frequency, yet it’s more likely that all of us pass by a number of these situations on a regular basis, but aren’t attuned enough to notice.
Imagine your drive to work: You’re probably a little tired or planning your day. Maybe you’re fiddling with the radio, or, if we’re being honest, tapping away on your phone. Even if your eyes are trained directly on the road, stress and other thoughts can take over.
We pass any number of people and situations that these distractions prevent us from seeing. And even if we witness an accident, would we stop? The reasons not to race through our minds: I’m already late for a 9 a.m. meeting. My kids are in the car. I’m scared.
But for Chuck, that thought process doesn’t occur.
“I wish I could think about it first,” Chuck said. “If I did, I probably wouldn’t run.”
Something takes over, propelling Chuck forward. Within an instant, he sees not only the danger, but the solution as well. He is able to see some way he can help.
That is the difference between a hero and a bystander.
Dr. Samuel Oliner has spent his life researching what causes some people to help others. He has written several books on altruism, including one called Do Unto Others: Extraordinary Acts of Ordinary People, which includes a chapter devoted to the Carnegie heroes.
Those who sit on the sideline are not evil people, Oliner said, but they don’t think of themselves as having the ability to make a change. A hero looks at the situation and says, “I’m pretty sure I can do it.”
This feeling isn’t acknowledged or debated during that moment. Chuck often won’t think about his actions till afterward. His mind skips right over that internal conversation that stops many of us from acting: Someone else will help. I’m in a hurry. I don’t want to get involved.
Chuck’s reaction is probably a combination of self-confidence and empathy, Oliner said. Ultimately, people like Chuck simply can’t stand by and watch people die. His wife helps, too, seeing things he might otherwise miss.
But while much of that is innate, it turns out, heroism is teachable.
Research done by Oliner, the Carnegie commission and others shows that early life experiences overwhelmingly impact the likelihood of someone to intervene and help others later in life. Whether it’s at home, at school or in the community, something nurtured that impulse to aid others, said Carnegie Hero Fund president Walter Rutkowski.
If as a child, you witness your mother stopping to help a stranger, you’re more likely to do the same later in life.
Yes, heroic instinct is part of the equation, but Oliner said seeing others make a difference and believing you can do the same is more important.
One more story.
This is an old memory with no other source to confirm it. But there’s no reason not to trust it happened the way Chuck tells it.
Chuck is 7. He’s at Colonial Beach in Tampa when he sees the lifeguard searching frantically. A girl was playing here and now she’s gone, he tells Chuck. He’s afraid she has drowned, but he can’t find her.
Immediately, Chuck starts searching, too. He wades through the lake, eyes panning the surface.
There, under 3 feet of water, is the 5-year-old girl. Chuck screams for help.
The lifeguard pulls the little girl from the water, pushing on her chest as she lays motionless on the ground. An ambulance takes her to the hospital where doctors would revive her.
More than five decades later, Chuck still remembers her vacant face staring up at him through the water.
Despite Chuck’s aversion to the word, society seems to have a never-ending fascination with heroes. Florence Nightingale. Oskar Schindler. Mother Teresa. The passengers aboard Flight 93 on 9/11. Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
These stories reaffirm our faith in humanity. And they do so in a way that the comic books and blockbusters can’t. Heroes like Chuck aren’t necessarily wealthy or at the top of an industry. These are human beings with jobs and families and struggles who, when the moment arises, step up and act.
They resonate more because they’re based in reality.
“This type of bravery and disregard for personal safety, is something police officers don’t encounter every day,” read the citizen award presented to Chuck in 2007. “It reminds us that there are good people out there.”
There’s something to that, said Veeder, the psychotherapist who met Chuck. But our interest in heroes is deeper than our desire for something positive. We care so much about the existence of heroes, she said, because we also want to believe we would respond the same way. That, given the right circumstance, we, too, could risk our own lives to save another.
Heroes like Chuck give us hope. Hope not only for the world we live in, but hope for ourselves.
Times news researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.