The hero of the Thames reminds me of the man who tried to save my mother’s life

I keep thinking about Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole, who died trying to save a woman who had fallen into the Thames from London Bridge. Why? God knows, there is enough death to think about. More than 3 million global Covid deaths, the kind of number that is beyond understanding, really. Our appalled attention shifts from here to Brazil to India, unable to process the magnitude of loss. The pandemic vocabulary of “excess deaths” and “confirmed deaths within 28 days” and the coloured lines on charts are numbing. “It’s terrible,” I think, but don’t feel, until something hits home with particular force. The wall of hearts on the Embankment in London, perhaps, or the Guardian’s Lost to the Virus series, which gives some of the deaths the texture, context and respect they all deserve. It has to be this way, I suppose. You can’t feel it all, can’t contemplate or comprehend every loss.

So why do I keep returning to this particular, non-pandemic death? For the obvious reasons: because he was so young, barely older than my sons. You can’t look at his bright, lovely face in the pictures the family have released and not feel how vital he is and how much living he should have had the opportunity to do. Because he died doing something extraordinary, the kind of thing most of us doubt we would be capable of, put to the test. And because his parents’ grief is so raw, proud and luminous with love. “I’m empty without Jimi,” said his mother, hollowed out over his hoodie. “My son is a hero and a very kind boy,” said his father. “He is my friend.”

I am acutely aware of people dazed and flayed with a fresh, private grief made public. It feels close to home: something similar happened when my mother died. She was killed when a mechanical walkway collapsed at a station in Rome, the kind of sufficiently shocking and unusual death that momentarily catapults you into a particular kind of strangeness, the kind where news reports get your loved one’s life, family and job wrong and describe their death with grisly adjectives. I don’t doubt the public interest: I read about disasters and deaths all the time. But I read about them differently since 2003, aware that even the most careful and responsible coverage cannot capture the reality of a situation for those living through it.

But it also affected me particularly because someone tried to save my mother too. Vincenzo Praticò, a stranger, a 38-year-old train driver who just happened to be passing, put himself in terrible danger to try to rescue her. He was very badly hurt in the process, sustaining life-changing injuries. The emotional trauma was, if anything, worse: there was a criminal negligence trial after my mother’s death, during which Praticò cried relating what had happened, remembering how he had tried and been unable to save her.

It would be wonderful, of course, if there had been a happy ending, both then and now. If the extraordinary Mr Praticò, who I think of often, could have known that his heroically self-sacrificing act saved my mum’s life. If Olubunmi-Adewole had survived for his mum to be furious and fiercely proud all at once at him taking such a risk.

Instead, Praticò received a “civic valour” medal. Olubunmi-Adewole has been nominated for a bravery award; there is a campaign to have him commemorated with a plaque on the bridge or elsewhere. I hope he will be honoured and remembered widely. It’s not much, but it is not nothing, particularly for his parents.

But above and beyond official recognition, their actions matter. It is a true comfort to me that my mum had the love – for it is love – of a complete stranger at that worst moment. It will be a true comfort, I think, to Olubunmi-Adewole’s family and friends that he died showing the world what an exceptional man he was. They matter, too, for people who are not intimately involved, because they reveal how much kindness surrounds us all. These can feel like dark times, but the light is there: Jimi and Vincenzo remind us of that.

Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist

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