PHILADELPHIA — Christopher Knafelc wasn’t even sure if he was a good person until a reporter asked him what it felt like to be a hero after he risked his life to pull a stranger off some subway tracks.
Still, Knafelc suggested he views his good deed and the praise that followed as another sign he is on the right path in life, at last.
“It did help reinforce that I’m a good person,” Knafelc said Friday. “I questioned that a lot because of my colorful past.”
Security footage at a station in North Philadelphia shows a man walk straight off the platform and onto the tracks Thursday afternoon.
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Knafelc, 32, seated on a bench about 20 feet away, sprang up, ran past bystanders and jumped down to check on the man before yelling to the cashier on the platform to stop the southbound train. Knafelc stayed with the man until help arrived 15 minutes later.
A small group of people was also waiting on the platform, but Knafelc was the only one to help. “I can’t imagine not helping someone in that situation,” he said.
Little about Knafelc’s past suggests the pedigree of a subway hero.
In middle school he was introduced to OxyContin in Baden, his hometown outside Pittsburgh. By high school, he had moved on to heroin. He studied neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh for nearly three years before he dropped out.
He spent the better part of the next 10 years bouncing from house to house, in and out of rehab, until he had exhausted all his favors. His cousin took him in to her home to get him clean. “I never left his side and he never left mine,” said Carrie Felinczak.
But he couldn’t shake the drugs. He tried staying with his mother in Florida, but relapsed. Back home near Pittsburgh, he took another nosedive. Then his girlfriend told him she was pregnant. His daughter was born in July 2010, despite his recommending an abortion. “I don’t remember holding my daughter for the first time,” he said.
His turning point came a few weeks later. His baby was crying and when he lifted her up, she stopped, looked at him and smiled. “It was her first, true smile,” he said. “That was the most powerful thing I’ve felt in my life, more powerful than any high from drugs.”
That moment helped, but the pressures of old friends and old habits were too much; online court records show Knafelc pleaded guilty in 2010 in Pennsylvania to charges of theft, driving under the influence, child endangerment and driving without a license.
His mother, now a teacher in South Philadelphia, invited him to stay with her. That was six months ago. On Monday, he got back to Philly after his latest visit to his daughter, two clean years under his belt. On Thursday, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) Police Chief Thomas Nestel said, he saved a man’s life.
Explaining his action, Knafelc said: “I was like 99.9 percent positive that I wouldn’t get electrocuted. I can’t see (the tracks) being able to electrocute you, because too many people would get hurt.”
Nestel said at a news conference at SEPTA headquarters that Knafelc’s belief wasn’t quite right. The track closer to the platform is safe, but the further one carries a deadly current.
Knafelc said that when he reached the fallen man, whom officials identified only as a 63-year-old North Philadelphia native, he cradled his neck and back to prevent further injury. Firefighters arrived about 15 minutes later and took the man to Temple University Hospital, where he was in stable condition Friday.
“He didn’t thank me, but I know he was thankful,” Knafelc said, explaining that the man seemed to be in too much pain to talk.
Knafelc knows something else: He was the only person at the station willing to help. “With addiction, you really struggle to be you,” he said.
He and the rest of his family didn’t see the tape of his actions until later, when local news stations put it online. “I reacted, and that was me. It helps reinforce that I am good. That I am a good person.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.