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Student recognized for heroism

Benjamin Saks had a rocky month last February. The architecture fourth-year’s car broke down, two of his tires were slashed, and he was shot in the hand after helping a police officer arrest a criminal.

“What’s worse was that my architecture project deadline was very close,” he said.

Such is the life of a hero.

Saks was granted this title, along with a bronze medal and a $4000 grant, by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission on September 28. The organization, which has no ties with Carnegie Mellon University, is a 21-member commission in Pittsburgh dedicated to honoring people who perform acts of heroism in the United States and Canada. They also provide financial assistance for those disabled and the dependents of those killed helping others.

“I’m very excited and honored,” Saks said. “Honestly, I don’t really think that I’m a hero. I only did what I thought was right and I hope that others would do so too.”

For Saks, last February 25 started like a normal day. As a huge basketball fan, he decided to go to the Carnegie Mellon basketball game. He was all set to leave and was waiting for his roommate, fellow architecture fourth-year Jared Langevin, who was eating a sandwich in the kitchen. Saks headed toward his backyard.

Gazing outside his backyard, Saks’ eye caught a police officer struggling with a person on the street. He instinctively approached the officer and asked whether he needed help. Little did Saks know that the person the officer was struggling with was a fleeing drug dealer, Omar Pagan, who had escaped from Miami.

Pagan, the police officer, and Saks were the only three people in the street. The officer’s backup radio didn’t work. Without thinking twice, Saks rushed to help the officer. He grabbed the suspect’s legs and helped hold him down.

“Unfortunately, in the brawl for the officer’s handgun, the suspect managed to get hold of the officer’s handgun,” he said. “Before we knew, the suspect pulled the trigger and the bullet went straight through the holster and to my left hand.

“I was really incredibly lucky— it could have been much worse. If the bullet was even a millimeter closer, the doctors say that I could have lost three of my left hand’s fingers. I try not thinking of what could have happened.”

The suspect was finally arrested on the arrival of two other police officers.

Following this, an ambulance rushed Saks to the hospital, where he received 30 stitches.

“It wasn’t until after the encounter that my hand really began to hurt,” he said. “Even weeks later, it was pretty bad. I had to clean the wound every day and it became really hard to sleep. I remember having a trail of thoughts of the gun’s trigger being suspended and a chill running through my spine.”

Brushing off the pain in his hand, he finished the looming architecture project, winning an honorable mention award for his work.
“Despite all this, the most fulfilling feeling comes in knowing that the drug dealer won’t be selling heroin anymore and that by helping the policeman, not only did I save the cop’s life, but also the life of all those that would be consuming those drugs,” he said.

So would he do it again?

“If somebody needs help, I’m definitely going to be there for them,” he said. “Though I would try not getting shot next time. I’m not the type of person that would turn their back on a person at a trying time.”

Saks said the encounter has given him an appreciation of actions and their consequences.

“I value life much more,” he said. “I admire those people on duty who are willing to put their life at stake to protect others to a much greater extent.”

When he’s not helping police officers, Saks spends his time modeling projects for architecture, relaxing with friends, going fishing and camping, and playing bass guitar.

“It was the fact that I really wanted to play my bass guitar that motivated me to recover faster,” he said. “In fact, I even turned down the hospital’s offer of providing me with physical therapy because playing the bass guitar was my real physical therapy.”
As for the $4000 and medal that he received from the Carnegie Hero Fund, he said he would put the money in his savings or “make a necklace of the medal and show it off.”

“I’m currently single, so I wouldn’t mind spending the money on someone.”

He considered donating the money, but reasoned that since the grant itself was a donation, “the purpose of the award would be defeated if [he] donated it.”

Does this hero plan to join the FBI after tackling crime? “If the FBI needs any architects, I’m ready to build the world.”