Pirates, Crashes, Disasters Reveal True Heroes

About 30 climbers attempted to ascend on May 10, which started out as a picture-perfect clear day, according to reporting in Outside magazine. But a severe storm described by the climbers as a wintery "hurricane" came on by late afternoon, just when the climbers needed to descend in order to make it back to camp safely.

The tragic day made several guides into heroes. Expert climbers Neal Beidleman, Rob Hall, Andy Harris, Scott Fischer and Anatoli Boudreev all as risked their lives to save others -- and some lost their lives in the process.

Those days, and some key disputed decisions that some argue could have saved lives, have inspired books "The Climb" by Anatoli Boukreev and Gary Weston DeWalt, "Left for Dead" by climber Beck Weathers, "Mountain Madness" by Robert Birkby, "Into Thin Air," by climber Jon Krakauer and several movies.

Many fingers have been pointed and aspects of the case discussed in letters to Outside magazine. But one of the largest issues was whether world-class climber Anatoli Boudreev, who ventured out into deadly winds to save two climbers, should have acted differently earlier in the day.

Whatver the controversy, experts say the fact that so many acted altruistically was actually part of human nature.

"There's something called the diffusion of responsibility," said Cleveland Clinic psychologist Scott Bea, referring to the so-called 'bystander effect.'

Although people can refrain from taking responsibility to act to save one in danger, as in the bystander effect, Bea said, when an entire group is in danger the opposite can happen: People feel a sense of allegiance and act with courage they may not have had alone.

"We can often behave with greater courage, and we feel more compelled to do so if a group is acting bravely than if we were in isolation," Bea said.

Leonard Abess Jr.

At a time when most banking CEOs are embroiled in controversy over multi-million-dollar bonuses and golden parachutes, Leonard Abess Jr. stood out by offering his employees $60 million out of his own pocket.

It was an act that many described as heroic and that even was acknowledged by President Barack Obama during a speech to Congress on Feb. 25, 2009.

"I think about Leonard Abess, the bank president from Miami who reportedly cashed out of his company, took a $60 million bonus, and gave it out to all 399 people who worked for him, plus another 72 who used to work for him," Obama said in his speech.

"It was an amazing moment," Abess told ABC News' Alice Maggin. "I was humbled and amazed; it was really something."

While Abess' sacrifice was not technically a life-or-death decision, Raison said that the altruism he displayed is similar to that shown by those in more perilous situations.

"I think that in all of these cases, what we see is that there is clearly a facet of human nature where, when the chips are down, some people are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good," Raison said.

The recognition Abess received stands in stark contrast to the lambasting of Merrill Lynch CEO Jon Thain, who became a poster boy for corporate greed when the national news media discovered that he had spent more than $1.2 million to redecorate his office, even as his firm lost $8 billion and was preparing to lay off 10 percent of its work force.

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