Bravery at the lakeside leaves its powerful legacy

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Michael Mee knew the risks of trying to rescue 11-year-old Tracey Patterson after she fell through thin ice on Thursday. He was a fireman. In his 26 years' experience in the fire brigade, he would have encountered and been trained for such situations. He had already seen another passer- by - Jack Crawshaw, who may have been less aware of the dangers - try to cross the ice and also plunge into the water.

In short, as the scene unfolded at the lake in Hemsworth Park, West Yorkshire, Michael Mee would have realised that he was likely to fail and that he could die in the attempt to fish Tracey out of the water. He was not required professionally to put his life on the line: he was off duty. Tracey was no relation: she was probably not even known to her would-be rescuers. Yet still he did all in his power to save her. He died, along with the others.

It was shocking to see the pictures of this tragedy, to hear the tales of how the emergency services tried for hours to resuscitate the victims. Reading the accounts conveys the sheer determination of the emergency services to defeat nature and bring the freezing bodies back to life. But even their will power was not enough to revive the dead.

In the end we were left with a sense of great waste, of lives lost for no tangible gain. Yet there was also a strong sense of nobility achieved even in defeat and death. The rescuers were not just brave: mountain climbers are brave. Michael Mee and Jack Crawshaw additionally harnessed their courageous natures to an altruistic end and demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for self-sacrifice.

Their heroism inevitably confronts each of us with a string of questions: "Would I have gone on to the ice? Would I have been one of those people who felt they must help because otherwise I would not be able to live with myself?" Many of us fear that we would have hesitated, stood at the side, retreated from the danger - paralysed by a combination of fear, cowardice and a sense of self-preservation. Indeed, the honest might admit to wondering whether, in retrospect, they really would have wanted the courage of Michael Mee and Jack Crawshaw, given the outcome.

Photographs published this week of Paul Brighton have graphically illustrated the dilemma of having our bravery tested. He was the classic "have-a-go" hero, the type whose death is so often the subject of huge headlines. Mr Brighton was relatively lucky. When he tackled a gang that had just shattered his bathroom window, his skull was smashed by a bucket filled with concrete. He survived, but only just - his skull pieced together by surgeons.

Most people can tell a story of their bravery being tested, of a moment when they have had to make a split-second decision that may then preoccupy them years later. It might involve choosing whether or not to intervene when a stranger was threatened by thugs. How many people have, for example, passed by a couple, when the woman looked like she was about to be beaten up, and done nothing? The trial of the two boys convicted of murdering Jamie Bulger highlighted the number of people who failed to intervene as the young child was dragged crying through a busy shopping centre.

And then there is the question of which of us is actually prepared for dealing with an emergency. It is all very well having courage, but skill is also vital. A willingness to help someone choking on a fish bone is not much use to someone untrained in first-aid techniques. How many people can confidently give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or, if they can swim, know how to rescue someone who is drowning?

Courage and bravery are not always about reacting in an emergency. Gordon Wilson, who died earlier this year, proved that. He showed his bravery, altruism and self-sacrifice by the way in which he overcame his bitterness and spent years using the death of his daughter, Marie, in the 1987 Enniskillen Poppy Day massacre, to further the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. Could we bear to be so forgiving?

Likewise, the defiant attitude of Jaymee Bowen, initially known as Child B during the national row over whether to fund her treatment for leukaemia, shows how courage is often needed for more than a moment. She is still fighting an illness that, more than likely, will claim her life. But her manner has given fresh hope to children in a similar situation.

Michael Mee and Jack Crawshaw passed their test. In doing so they challenged a great many preconceptions about what has happened to British society. We are told that individualism is no longer fettered by a commitment to the common good. Families seem to be breaking down, society fragmenting, bonds are weakening between people. And the decline in religious belief - indicating a loss of faith in the existence of an after-life - seems to suggest that people would be less willing these days to put their lives on the line for others.

Yet, despite all this, these men felt compelled to do what they did. Courage and altruism - WB Yeats called it the "delirium of the brave" - seemed to eclipse other pressures to walk away. Sometimes, to run away from a moral imperative is to leave oneself tormented for years to come by a sense of inadequacy and failure.

Philip Lawrence, the London headteacher, who this week was named Man of the Year in a Radio 4 listeners' poll, understood this. When he discovered that one of his pupils was being set upon by a gang, he did not hang back. His bravery led to his being stabbed to death.

We stand in awe of such people, who seem perfectly normal, just like us, until they are called upon to do the extraordinary. Would we measure up to the task? Their example gives us the power to believe that we could.