The hero's mantle fits Noel Sanchez's brawny shoulders uneasily, but he wears it gracefully.
His rescue last week of a 3-year-old girl from an attempted rape in a Manhattan schoolyard was "something anyone would do," )) the 22-year-old tow-truck driver said yesterday.
Perhaps. But Mr. Sanchez -- who arrived in Catonsville from New York City early yesterday to celebrate his birthday with his family "and to get away from it all" -- was apparently the only one of the gaping crowd of bystanders who did intervene to stop the assault.
And no one called police, he said.
The assault scene, during afternoon rush hour about 25 feet off the busy Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, was so bizarre that witnesses were either too astonished to act or refused to become involved, said the 6-foot-1-inch, 285-pound former Catonsville High School student.
"It was an impulse. I couldn't let it go on. It was just a little girl," Mr. Sanchez recalled yesterday in an interview at his father's house. "It p----d me off; I said, 'You're not going to get away with it.' "
He said he has two families -- his parents have both remarried -- with three sisters, two 9 years old and one 13. "It could happen to them," he said.
Mr. Sanchez testified Thursday before a Manhattan grand jury. Afterward, he said, the victim's grandmother and mother -- the defendant's sister -- "came up and thanked me and hugged me, and I hugged them back."
During the incident, he said, he almost became a victim himself when he cornered the suspect -- who was carrying the child -- about four blocks away.
An unsuspecting crowd gathered from the multiracial neighborhood, known as El Barrio. "I looked like a bad man, beating up a guy with his little daughter," Mr. Sanchez said. "The neighbors thought I was crazy; they wanted to know what I was doing."
Once the spectators learned what had happened, however, "they yelled, 'Let us have him, let him go,' " he said. Even after he turned the suspect over to police, the crowd bayed for a chance to attack the man, Mr. Sanchez said.
"I think what he did was great," said his stepmother, Margie Sanchez. "I asked him, 'Did you hurt the guy?' He said he did and I was glad. He's always been aggressive, but this is the first time I was ever proud of him for inflicting pain on someone."
Mr. Sanchez, a Bronx, N.Y., native who wears a Yankees cap, lived in Catonsville from 1985 to 1989. He returned to New York to complete school at John F. Kennedy High School, where he played football.
A tow-truck driver for five years, Mr. Sanchez is no stranger to Gotham's violence and he has the bullet scars on his left thigh to prove it.
One year ago today, he said, he returned to the Bronx from a birthday visit to Baltimore and went to a party. Two men got into a fight over a woman; one left, returned with friends and started shooting.
"There was one dead and six wounded in that one," he said.
For Mr. Sanchez, the rape incident began as he drove south on FDR Drive to an accident on 61st Street and came upon a traffic backup around 116th Street.
"I thought it was an accident or something so I climbed the truck onto the sidewalk and flicked on my yellow and red lights. Suddenly, a man says, 'Look,' and through the fence I could see what was going on."
A man, his trousers around his ankles, was on his knees pulling the child -- who wore only a green T-shirt -- toward him, Mr. Sanchez said. "Twenty people were just standing there," he said.
One man tried to scale the wrought-iron picket fence that surrounds the schoolyard of the High School of Mathematics and Science, but fell on his back and cut himself.
The attacker then grabbed the girl and started to run, Mr. Sanchez said. "I saw him, so I backed my truck up along 116th Street. I got on the radio to the other midtown drivers and eight tow trucks began converging on the area."
Carrying the girl, the man tried to hide himself in the heavy pedestrian traffic. But about four blocks from the scene, Mr. Sanchez said he "came out of the truck with my big bat and went after him. I poked him with the bat and he tried to block me with the girl's body."
The man asked, " 'Why don't you mind your own business,' and he threatened me," Mr. Sanchez recounted.
Finally, Freddie Villanueva, another tow-truck driver, arrived and took the girl, while Mr. Sanchez grabbed the suspect. "I forced him up against the wall and held him while Freddie ran and got the police, who were down the street on the phone," he said. A police officer took charge of the child while other officers took the man into custody.
The child was released after treatment at the Metropolitan Hospital Center.
According to police, the suspect and his sister, Sandra Brown, had been drinking in the schoolyard, and the attack occurred when she asked him to take the child to a nearby bathroom.
The defendant, Leroy Saunders, 29, is being held without bail in the Rikers Island jail. Gerald McElvey, spokesman for the Manhattan district attorney's office, said yesterday that final grand jury action has been delayed until Mr. Saunders decides whether he wants to appear before the grand jury.
Mr. McElvey said Mr. Saunders' court-appointed lawyer, Donna Benik, told the court Thursday that she is "having trouble communicating with her client" about his wishes.