Why did more than 20 passersby leave a homeless man to bleed to death on a New York City sidewalk last week?
It's not necessarily because they didn't care, experts say. Their behavior may be a symptom of city living.
Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, 31, collapsed on a Queens, N.Y., sidewalk after he was stabbed several times by a mugger, but his motionless form didn't inspire a single passerby to help or to alert the police -- until he had been lying there bleeding to death for more than an hour.
The incident, captured on a surveillance camera, began around 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 18, when the homeless man sprang into action to thwart a man attempting to mug a woman on the street.
But though the homeless Good Samaritan risked -- and ultimately sacrified -- his life to help a stranger, his kindness was not returned by a single one of the more than 20 people who passed his wounded body on the sidewalk. In fact, the video showed, one man rolled over Tale-Yax but then walked away and another used his cell phone to snap a picture of the dying man.
By the time a 911 call directed firefighters to the scene, Tale-Yax was already dead. The woman he saved, as yet unidentified, had fled the scene before he even collapsed.
Like past cases in which bystanders failed to help those in need, this story begs the question, "Why did no one stop to help?"
Human behavior experts offer a few explanations for the public's failure to get involved..
Sometimes it's the "bystander effect," a phenomena that occurs when individuals fail to respond to an emergency because they assume others present will act, said social psychologists.
This term was coined following the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a young woman who was stabbed to death in another neighborhood in Queens while several of her neighbors looked on.
While some reports liken the Tale-Yax tragedy to the Genovese case, there are some key differences, noted Paul Wolpe, director of Emory University's Center for Ethics.
In the Tale-Yax case, the passersby were individuals rather than part of a group, so their responsibility was not diffused in the same way, he said.
"Studies show that if a person comes across someone in need of help, being alone makes them more likely to help. If there were 10 people, there is less of a sense of personal responsibility," he said.
Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, adds that another key ingredient for helping was missing: witnessing the trauma.
"When you don't witness the assault, you are less inclined to help because you're not sure what's going on when a person is lying there," he said.
The fact that the victim was homeless compounded the uncertainty about what had occured and whether help was needed, said Wolpe.
"When you see homeless people sleeping on the streets all the time, another body on the street becomes unremarkable," he said. Had Tale-Yax been wearing a three-piece suit, he would likely have gotten more attention because it is unusual for a well-dressed man to be lying on the sidewalk, Wolpe said.
"We categorize homeless people as the kind of person that we pass and don't help -- we do this every day in New York City. It becomes business as usual," he said.
The failure to help is tied less to acceptance of life on the streets and more to disdain for homeless people, said Caplan.