Someone Falls Down on the Sidewalk: What Do You Do?

"What Would You Do?" stages a scenario with a woman and a homeless man.

March 5, 2009, 1:11 PM

March 13, 2009— -- There has been a tremendous outpouring of support for Linda Hamilton, the woman who came to the actor's rescue in this "What Would You Do?" scenario. ABC News is actively working to make contact with Hamilton again and are looking for a way for those who have offered assistance to reach out to her. Thank you again for watching the show and for offering to help. We will update you with details soon.

Read the original story below, published on March 6, 2009:

If you saw someone collapse in front of you on your way to work, would you come to his or her aid or just walk on by? It seems like a simple question, and we all like to think that we would do the right thing, but sometimes there's evidence to the contrary.

In 2008, shocking surveillance footage of a woman's death on the floor of a New York hospital waiting room made news across the country as people questioned why she was left to die. In the video, released by the New York Civil Liberties Union, hospital staff apparently ignored her as she lay on the floor for 45 minutes, until it was too late.

And just last month in Washington, D.C., a homeless man was attacked and left on the sidewalk for 19 minutes before anyone called the police. A security camera was rolling as numerous people stopped to look and then passed right on by. Eventual attempts to help the man were too little and too late, and he later died.

But regardless of incidents like these, wouldn't the average person step in to help someone in need? "What Would You Do?" went to New Jersey with our hidden cameras to find out.

We chose a busy street, planning to catch people at the peak of rush hour as they hurried to the nearby train station. But the morning commute was anything but ordinary. Suddenly, a woman fell to the ground right in the flow of pedestrian traffic, apparently unconscious.

What the commuters didn't know was that this woman was not really in danger. She was stuntwoman Stephanie Stokes-Smyj, hired by the "What Would You Do?" team for this ethical dilemma. Would people stop to help her, even if it meant arriving late to work and possibly putting themselves in harm's way?

A few people walked right by after she hit the ground, but within seconds, concerned commuters rushed to her aid. Diane Coward hurried over to Stokes-Smyj and knelt down beside her.

"Hello? Are you all right? Miss? Miss?" she said as she leaned over our actor. She pulled out her cell phone to call 911. "What Would You Do?" had already alerted 911 operators to disregard calls related to this ABC News ethical dilemma.

A crowd quickly formed, all offering assistance.

'I Didn't Want to Take Chances'

When anchor John Quinones approached Coward, he asked why she would take so much time out of her morning to help a stranger.

"She fell and she was hurt, and I didn't want to take chances," Coward said. "It don't make no difference if you're a stranger or not. You know, you're supposed to take care of anybody."

Time after time, people rushed to Stokes-Smyj's aid within seconds. She barely hit the ground before people were at her side trying to help. Some tried to assess her medical needs, taking her pulse and listening to her breathing. Others simply offered comfort.

"Honey, sweetie, you OK?" asked Carmen Cordero, who jumped out of her car and rushed to Stokes-Smyj's side. "Stay there, I know it hurts. Help is coming. Help is on the way, sweetie."

Cordero said people's caring reactions to the scenario are a testament to her strong community. "Around here, I don't know, we stick up for each other," she said. "We look out for each other. It doesn't matter who it is."

We were impressed with everyone's generosity and concern, but we wondered what would happen if instead of a well-dressed businesswoman, the person in need was a homeless man.

It was time to send in Mick O'Rourke, a stuntman dressed in tattered, dirty clothing. Just like Stokes-Smyj, he fell to the ground in front of a stream of pedestrians. But while help was instantaneous before, no one was quite as eager to step in this time around.

A young woman stared over her shoulder as she walked by.

"I'm scared, I don't know. It's not safe," she told Quinones after she left the scene. "I would probably stay out of this. I'll just look and leave."

One man said that if he decided to get involved, he may have been putting himself in danger.

"Especially in this area, you don't know," said Peter McKnight. "People come up with all kinds of scams, all kinds of situations to try and take advantage of being nice. And therefore, you have to be very careful."

It took several minutes, but eventually people did step up to the plate. While many called 911, a few people even searched through O'Rourke's tattered clothes to find his medicine.

"It shouldn't matter -- people, you've got to help them," said Charles Mobley, who came to our actor's rescue. "They need help, help 'em. Just reach out. What if it was you? What if it was me?"

Homeless Not Considered 'Fully Human'?

While bystanders rushed to the side of our female stuntwoman in mere seconds, it took much longer for anyone to help the homeless man.

We asked social psychologist Jack Dovidio of Yale University why people reacted so differently.

"The good part about human beings is that we have a capacity to connect and experience concern and sympathy for others. The bad part is we often decide who's worth caring about," Dovidio explained.

"And in this case, a homeless person is a member of a group that we don't care about, that we don't see as fully human. And therefore, we don't respond the way we would to other people."

At the end of the day, we decided to give our unknowing passersby one more test. If they thought this homeless man had been drinking, and perhaps was at fault for his own situation, would they still be moved to help?

O'Rourke collapsed on the ground again, but this time he had a can of beer in his hand. Immediately, two men walked right past him. One spat on the ground as he went by.

"Wow, a beautiful view of New Jersey," said another woman as she stepped around him and continued down the street.

Eleven minutes ticked by and in total, 88 people walked right past.

Just as we began to think that no one would ever step in we saw a disabled woman limping slowly down the street toward our actor.

Linda Hamilton, who police told us is sometimes homeless herself, tried to get others to help. She didn't have a cell phone, but Hamilton made her presence known, standing right next to O'Rourke for several minutes, trying to get others to stop and call 911.

"Excuse me, could you please call an ambulance?" she repeated as person after person passed by. Shockingly, 26 people walked by, ignoring her simple plea for help. Hamilton even took the beer can out of our actor's hand and threw it away, perhaps hoping this would convince others to step in.

Finally, Hamilton's courageous example helped turn the tide. As she stayed by our actor's side, one woman heard her and stopped to call for an ambulance. A few moments later, another man, Bill Donzeiser, joined in, sliding a piece of cardboard under Mick's head to make him more comfortable.

'You Should Help People in Need'

"I was kind of surprised when I came walking along. Nobody seemed to be caring," Donzeiser said. "There are a lot of people that need help, and there are a lot of us that are fortunate enough to be able to help. And I always think you should help people in need."

We asked Hamilton why she stopped and stayed by the man for so long.

"I'm disabled. If I was out in the street drunk like that I'd want someone to help me," she said.

When we asked her how she felt as she watched people walk right by, her response was simple.

"I cried," she said. "I cried."

And then this quiet and unassuming woman, our hero of the day, slowly hobbled away down the street, inviting us all to consider what we ourselves would do.

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