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Hero who saved life of stricken man in New York subway reflects on his year in the spotlight

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Posted: January 1, 2008 5:40 p.m.
Updated: January 16, 2008 5:00 a.m.
    NEW YORK — The train was bearing down, and Wesley Autrey Sr. was trying to lift Cameron Hollopeter off the wet, slippery subway tracks where the young man had fallen after suffering an epileptic seizure.
    Recalling the heroic act that earned him the nickname ‘‘subway superman’’ one year ago, Autrey described how he ‘‘bear-hugged’’ Hollopeter and told him: ‘‘Whatever you do, please don’t push me up. I’m going to be the one that’s going to get it, and you’re going to be OK.’’
    The train passed over both men, grazing Autrey’s hat, while Autrey’s two young daughters watched in horror.
    Dapper in a leather fedora and a sporting a tiny hoop earring, Autrey was patient and soft-spoken as he recounted the events for the hundredth time, or perhaps the thousandth, over cafe con leche Tuesday at his favorite West Harlem restaurant, steps from the subway station where the Jan. 2, 2007, rescue unfolded.
    It’s been a busy year for Autrey, 51, a laborer and shop steward who works Monday through Friday at an apartment building under construction nearby, takes care of his daughters on the weekends and gives all the speeches and interviews he can squeeze in.
    No time for the trip to Disney World he was promised during the rescue’s dizzying aftermath, no time for the Playboy mansion, where he was invited by Hugh Hefner because he was wearing a hat with a Playboy insignia the day of the rescue.
    But he has been on David Letterman’s and Ellen DeGeneres’ shows; flown to Germany for Letterman’s late-night equivalent there, Johannes Kerner; and been feted at City Hall and at the Super Bowl.
    He’s been to the White House twice, for the State of the Union address and for a Black History Month commemoration.
    There’s been controversy, too. Autrey and his lawyer settled lawsuits against each other over a contract they signed to exploit his name and heroism.
    ‘‘The only thing that I can say is that it was a very costly learning experience for me as far as trusting people,’’ he said.
    Autrey said his daughters, Shuqui and Syshe, now 7 and 5, are doing well. The Writers Guild strike has delayed movie deals, but a children’s book and an adult book are in the works.
    He spoke with Hollopeter, a film student, and Hollopeter’s mother on Thanksgiving.
    ‘‘They’re a very private family,’’ he said. ‘‘The mother just thanked me and thanked me and thanked me. He’s doing fine.’’
    Hollopeter suffered his first seizure on the platform, and two women joined Autrey in trying to help the 19-year-old, he said.
    ‘‘When he fell onto the track he went into a second seizure,’’ he said.
    Autrey glanced at the women who had helped earlier.
    ‘‘I didn’t even have time to tell them to watch my daughters. I just pointed at them and gave them a look. And when I saw them grab my daughters around the waist and they went and sat on the bench, I knew that they was OK. A voice from somewhere said, ’Go save that life, don’t worry about your own, don’t worry about your daughters.’’’
    An artist later showed him a picture he had painted of an angel holding Autrey as Autrey held Hollopeter. ‘‘And that’s exactly what went down,’’ he said.
    On the one-year anniversary Wednesday, Autrey planned to report to work at 7 a.m. as usual. Construction work has its own rewards, he added.
    ‘‘I drive around the city a lot,’’ Autrey said. ‘‘I tell my daughters, ’Dad worked on that building.’ At the Waldorf back in February there was a dinner in my honor. Ten years ago I was hanging on a scaffold 40 stories in the air outside that building, little knowing that someday I’d be in that building and they’d be recognizing me for what I’d done.’’

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