Knight, Const. Stephen (Profile)
IT WAS GOING ON 4 A.M. when Const. Stephen Knight realized his shirt was wet - not the light, cool dampness of perspiration, but the leaden fog of a thorough soaking. It had been an hour since Knight, off duty from his job with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, had rescued a bouncer from a knife-wielding attacker in St. John's. He'd then chased the assailant down, wrestled him to the sidewalk, and pinned him there until on-duty officers caught up. It was an impressive feat, but not one that should have left him drenched in sweat. The attacker ran maybe 100 m, Knight now recalls, before stumbling into a parked car.
So, standing in police headquarters with his wife, Colleen, at his side, the 38-year-old constable hitched up his leather jacket to investigate. The sight was chilling. What had once been his white T-shirt was crimson, soaked from shoulder to hem with blood. "Oh my God, you've been stabbed," Colleen blurted. And sure enough, an incision the width of his thumbnail was leaking from his left side. He hadn't felt the wound, located a few inches above the waistline. He hadn't even felt faint. But as he stared at the cut in the police station, the gravity of his situation sunk in. "Seeing your own blood gives you a whole new perspective on things," he explains. "I was scared."
Valour, it's been said, is a finite resource even in the bravest men. But if Knight's tank of courage came close to running dry that morning last January, the true wonder may be that it took so long. His intervention on behalf of the bouncer was the second time in less than a year he'd put his life in peril for a stranger. The previous February, he'd made local headlines by plunging into a half-frozen river to rescue a suicidal young woman who'd thrown herself from a footbridge. Witnesses said he got hold of the 16-year-old just as the current was about to drag her beneath a blanket of ice.
In both cases, Knight has been awarded a Governor General's Medal of Bravery, which sets him apart from your garden-variety do-gooder. While there are two higher awards in Canada's honour system, the Cross of Valour and Star of Courage, a spokesman at Rideau Hall says Knight's two M of Bs inside of 11 months puts him in "a pretty elite club." Since the award was created in 1972, only eight people have ever won it twice. Of that subset, only three did so in the same year. If Knight is not Canada's bravest man, then he's something pretty close to it.
A HULK OF a fellow with a booming voice and an easy laugh, Knight isn't shy about telling his story, so long, he says, as you "don't make it sound like I'm putting on my cape." Standing in Bowring Park, a scenic green space at the southwest end of St. John's, he pauses on the footbridge where the young woman had jumped. It's the first time he's been back since the incident. Now, surveying the sheer rock walls surrounding the gorge below, he marvels at the efforts of three officers who arrived to pull her from the water as he pushed her toward shore. "Imagine these rocks all covered in ice," he says. "What they did was amazing."
But the facts are the facts, and Knight was the one who took a swim that day. In recent weeks, he's been meditating on the meaning of that. Is he a come-by-chance hero, having twice stumbled on strangers in crisis? Or is there some alchemy of personality, some quirk of genetics or upbringing, that propelled him to act where others might have paused? More importantly, would he do it all again?
The answer to the last question, he's decided, is yes - despite his deep-seated fears about leaving his wife and two young children alone. "It's who I am," he says, sounding resigned, "the kind of person who gets involved." Explaining his motivations is more complicated. On the one hand, he was assuming the burden to act that many police officers feel, regardless of whether they're on duty. But in each case, he never paused to consider a safer option. It's what Napoleon once described as "two o'clock in the morning courage" - the reflexive urge to act, and a virtue the Little Corporal claimed he'd rarely met. Knight makes no claim to it. But it's fun to think that, had Napoleon watched him in action on Feb. 18, 2004, he would have been favourably impressed.
The rescue began with a passerby's panicked call to police: a girl from the nearby Waterford Psychiatric Hospital appeared poised to jump from a bridge. It took the officers a while to locate her - at least five bridges cross the Waterford River in the area - and just as Knight and his partner, Const. Jeff Mackey, pulled up, the girl surprised them by plunging in. "Usually, you get a chance to start talking to them," Knight says. "She didn't say a word. Just jumped."
He gestures to an expanse a few metres downstream where the river widens. The water, he recalls, was disappearing under a mantle of ice created by snowfall and the constant freeze-thaw cycles of a St. John's winter. "When I got down here, all I could see was the girl's coat," he says. "She wasn't coming out." So, without a second to lose, he darted across the bridge, skidded down a snowy embankment and threw himself into the water.
The cold hit him like a truck. It was -6º C that day and, worse, Knight realized too late that he was still wearing his gun belt, his flashlight and his body armour, which pretty much turned him into a human anchor. First, he sank up to his chest. Soon, as he neared the pool where the girl was trapped with her head under water, he found himself up to his neck. But by grasping the teen with one hand and hanging onto a rock crevice with the other, Knight was able to direct her to a small ice shelf where Const. Brian Marshall and his partner, Const. Andrew Crocker, were waiting. The other officers quickly tugged her ashore, then combined to rescue their sodden colleague. "Picture Steve soaking wet in winter clothes," Crocker recalls, laughing. "Gun, vest, jacket - the whole nine yards. We had some time getting him out."
Knight went home for a warm bath and was back on the job the next day. His exploits became fodder for a stream of squad room jokes, and he took a chiding from his wife when she saw pictures of the ice-covered gorge on the evenings news. No one imagined how soon he'd be back in the spotlight, or how close he'd come to paying with his life.
That next time, the scene was George Street, a legendary block of bars and nightclubs that on weekend nights transforms into a hive of revelry, with hundreds of people teeming about the narrow, cobbled avenue. A proficient guitar player and a pretty good singer, Knight had been moonlighting that evening with an all-police Celtic band at a pub called O'Reilly's. Colleen came to watch with a group of her girlfriends, and at closing time she and Knight were just leaving when they heard a disturbance in a narrow lane beside the bar. Knight approached, spotting a bouncer from the bar surrounded by a group of three or four men. Then he saw one of the men - a guy in a white track suit - pull a knife.
By the time he reached the scene, the knife-wielding attacker was, as he puts it, "using the bouncer as a pin cushion - he must have stabbed the guy six or seven times, twisting the knife every time." And yet Knight waded into the melee anyway, grappling with the man in the track suit as he swung the blade about wildly. Knight managed to land a punch on the assailant's chest, forcing him to flee. Then, chugging along in pursuit, he rounded a corner in time to catch the man as he stumbled and fell. Somewhere in all that - he's not entirely sure when - he took the stab to the midsection.
A CT scan later showed the wound sunk 4½ inches into Knight's flank, though it somehow missed his kidney or spleen. "They told me it's a credit I'm a big boy," he jokes. "No diets for me." His wife, however, wasn't laughing. As she waited for the results of his scans, she wondered whether she'd married a pathological risk-taker. "I could have been a 35-year-old widow," she says. "I know it's part of his job, but now whenever he goes out the door, I can't help wondering if he's going to come back."
THE KNIGHTS' small but comfy home in the suburb of Mount Pearl reflects the guiding influences of their world. On the wall of the foyer is a montage-style painting celebrating the RNC, the police force Stephen grew up dreaming he'd serve. The living room is adorned with landscapes of their beloved province, a rocky cove here, a windswept meadow there. These are a comfort to Colleen, who was raised in Petty Harbour, a fishing village south of St. John's and undeniably one of the country's most scenic spots.
After the night on George Street, her life changed. When Stephen was working graveyard shifts, she began sleeping on the tan leather couch in the living room, half-listening for the sound of his key in the lock. A slight woman with dark eyes and a steady gaze, she refuses to be intimidated. "I'm still very proud of him, and I know he'd do it again tomorrow," she says. But she worries at times for the couple's children, four-year-old Brandon and seven-year-old Natasha. "I think I have a better understanding now of what it means to be married to a police officer."
She also understands that Knight is not just any police officer, not just any person. Colleen, who is soft-spoken and happy to remain in the background, is among those who freely admits that she wouldn't have done what her husband did - not because she's considerably smaller than his six-foot-two, 260-lb. frame, or selfish, but because she lacks the risk-taking reflex that drives him into action. Psychologists have spent years trying to identify the origin of that instinct, to learn what distinguishes the heroically brave from the rest of the pack. Among the few reliable indicators they've found is a bias toward extroversion: heroes tend to be the kind of people who take the stage while others balk. U.S. psychologist Frank Farley labelled these "Type-A" personalities, and identified "T-positive" as being the variety disposed to use their powers for gallantry.
By all accounts, T-positive is a pretty good description of Stephen Knight. He's never minded centre stage, perhaps due to his experience as a musician. A few years ago, at a slo-pitch tournament in Niagara Falls, Ont., he took to singing Ode to Newfoundland, the island's official anthem, before his team's games. Word spread, and soon crowds of people were gathering to hear him, removing their caps as the big man held forth from home plate. Among police colleagues, he's known for getting in on calls whenever possible, whether he's taking the lead or lending support. "He's not going to sit and wait for life to come to him," says Marshall, a close friend. "He likes to get his nose in there."
These days, he can hardly go a step without acquaintances or strangers wishing him well. At the bridge over the Waterford, he's buttonholed by friends of his parents who had seen a recent write-up on him in the Telegram, St. John's daily paper. Colleen likes to tell the story of a woman who rushed up recently to congratulate him outside the Winner's department store. "He's an all-round man, isn't he?" the stranger gushed. "Even shops with his wife!"
Looking across the living room, Colleen now jokes that she has to walk ahead of her husband "to keep the crowds back." But they both accept the adulation gratefully - not least because both rescuees are indisposed to offer much in the way of gratitude (after undergoing emergency bowel surgery for his stab wounds, the bouncer has been mysteriously tight-lipped about the attack; the teenaged girl from the bridge remains in psychiatric care). In the meantime, Knight has been looking at things from his wife's perspective. The night of the George Street attack, he observes, an officer in Cobourg, Ont., was fatally stabbed after being lured by a false 911 call, a coincidence he still finds chilling. He may not be able to change who he is, Knight says, and when confronted with the same situations, he might respond the same way 100 times over.
But at the very least, Knight can now see the fine line between heroics and reckless risk, and he knows which side he wants to be on. "I was so fortunate," he says, "that my life was spared."
Maclean's October 24, 2005