Saving one man's life bolsters all humanity


May 08, 1992|By ROGER SIMON

I called Reginald Denny yesterday, and while he was not giving interviews, the hospital spokesman said Denny had regained the power of speech.

Nobody had known for sure if he ever would talk again. Nobody had known for sure if he ever would walk again.

"But he took a few steps for the first time," the spokesman said. "And that's very good news."

Indeed it is. Reginald Denny is the white truck driver who was pulled from the cab of his cement truck and beaten during the recent rioting in Los Angeles.

But today's column is not really about him. It is about some others, who watched Denny on television.

Lei Yuille, 37, a black woman, watched the live pictures being taken by the TV helicopter. She saw Denny being dragged from his truck and beaten with a fire extinguisher, his blond hair flying as the blows fell. She saw him down on his knees, semi-conscious, as a rioter smashed his head with a rock.

Denny crumpled all the way to the ground and lay there as another rioter ran up and stole his wallet.

People reacted in different ways to these pictures.

LaVon Watson, who lives in the same neighborhood as Lei Yuille, said: "Rodney King was the white man's verdict. That guy in the semi was our verdict."

But was it? Not everybody agreed. Yuille was angry over the acquittal of the four policemen accused of beating King. "But this wasn't right," she said after she saw Denny being beaten. "They had no right to try to take a man's life. I was angry. And disgusted."

As were many. But Yuille did something about it. She left the safety of her home and went out into the maelstrom. She went out to save Reginald Denny.

Denny, 36, was working for the Transit Mixed Concrete Co., making $16.70 an hour. He was delivering a 27-ton load of gravel to a cement mixing plant when the King beating verdict was announced.

Denny may not have known about the verdict; he doesn't now remember much of what happened. (And there are a number of minor conflicts in the accounts. I am indebted to Steve Lopez of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Laurie Becklund and Stephanie Chavez of the Los Angeles Times for this account.)

"Last thing I remember is driving my 18-wheeler down Florence toward Railroad Street," Denny wrote in two-inch high letters after he regained consciousness in the hospital. "I don't know what happened. Ithink I was clubbed."

He was. Kicked and spat upon, too. But a few blocks away, Titus J. Murphy, 30, and his girlfriend, Terri Barnett, 28, both black, watched it on TV and did not like what they saw. "Somebody's got to get that guy out of there," Murphy said. Later he said: "It was just like Rodney King. They beat him and they beat him."

Murphy and Barnett got in their car and drove as close as they could to Denny and then walked the rest of the way.

Denny, his face a mask of blood, somehow regained consciousness and dragged himself into the cab of his truck, starting it up. But his eyes were swollen shut and he could not see to drive. Blood clots began forming in his brain. Doctors would say later that he was only a few minutes away from death.

Murphy and Barnett climbed up onto Denny's truck as Yuille also arrived and pushed her way through the rioters, climbing into the cab of the truck. She cradled Denny in her arms. "You're going to make it," she told him. 'You're going to make it."

Slowly, the rescuers inched the big truck to Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital. As they arrived, Denny began going into convulsions and vomiting blood. He spent three hours in surgery that night.

Even after he regained consciousness, it was not known if Denny would suffer permanent neurological damage. But the hospital told me yesterday it looks as if he will not. Tomorrow he will undergo reconstructive surgery to try to put the left side of his face back together.

President Bush, visiting Los Angeles yesterday, said the rescuers of Denny and others had "reached out across the barriers of color and put their own safety at risk to help others." But they did more. There is an old saying that goes: "He who saves but one life, saves humanity."

He who saves just one person, proves the human animal is more than just an animal. No matter how much evidence there is to the contrary.

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