I attended the funeral of a man I didn’t know.
In the pew in front of me sat two women who also hadn’t met him. And in front them, in rows packed with people, there were others who knew nothing about Patricio Salazar’s love of sports or books or his ability to talk to anyone he met.
They knew only how he had died: trying to help someone.
If a measure of our worth is who mourns us when we’re gone, it is the rarest among us who are missed by not only friends and family members, but also strangers, people we touched without even knowing it.
And in recent days, it has become clear that Salazar, 54, touched many with his selfless last act.
Many of us would like to think that if we heard a scream, we would turn toward it and not ignore it, and that, if tested, we would have the courage to stand up for someone who couldn’t stand up for themselves.
The reality is that not all of us would. Salazar did.
He witnessed a man physically and sexually assaulting a woman in Arlington, Va., on Oct. 18 and tried to help, police said. That man then beat Salazar so severely, police said, that he was pronounced dead at a hospital.
So many hate-fueled events have recently vied for our attention, and with what little emotional reserves we have left, it’s understandable if you missed — or even dismissed — news stories that told of Salazar’s death.
But this is why his loss has resonated in his Virginia community and why people beyond it should also know his name: Any one of us could have been in Salazar’s position that night, forced to decide whether to do something or nothing. And in a way, each of us faces that question at this very moment. The type of violence he witnessed, and tried to stop, was not an anomaly. It occurs every day.
An American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds, and that victim is a child every eight minutes, according to RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual- violence organization.
Think about that. In the time it takes to warm up a cup of coffee, someone’s life has been irreparably changed. Cook a quick breakfast alongside it, and a child’s life has been damaged.
If you believe that sexual violence does not affect you, you are lucky — and naive. Sexual violence happens on the Metro, in parking lots and in office buildings. It happens between strangers and between spouses. It has probably already happened to someone you care about.
Three days after Salazar died, a woman was forced into an alley in Northwest Washington and sexually assaulted.
A day after that, a 16-year-old girl was raped in a parking lot stairwell in Montgomery County by a man she had talked to on a bus who had followed her off it.
The woman Salazar tried to help was on a sidewalk on a busy street when her boyfriend began violently attacking her, according to court records.
Bradley Flood was inside his home nearby when he heard the woman’s screams.
The 27-year-old walked across the street and saw the woman on the ground, naked and curled into a ball. He also saw the man who allegedly assaulted her and noticed blood on his knuckles.
“You call the cops, and it will be the end of you,” Flood recalled the man telling him. Flood said he backed up toward the street and flagged down drivers, telling them to call 911. He then went back to check on the woman and found that the man had fled.
That’s when he noticed Salazar on the sidewalk, bleeding. He said Salazar was able to talk and asked him to wipe the blood from his face. Flood took off his sweatshirt to do so.
“You’re a hero,” Flood told him several times. “You saved her.”
Of everything he did that night, Flood said, he is most proud that he thought to tell Salazar that.
“That was an unwinnable situation for him, and he did it anyway because he’s a hero,” Flood said. “What would have happened if Patricio wasn’t there?”
Police later arrested Michael Nash, 27, and charged him with abduction with intent to defile, forcible sodomy and animate object sexual penetration. Authorities said more charges are expected.
Flood said he has no idea how long the woman was screaming and how many people heard her and did nothing. He went to the police station to give a witness statement and said a detective told him it’s not uncommon for people to ignore it.
“It’s like a car alarm — people tune it out,” he recalled the detective saying.
We have to stop doing that — tuning out the people around us. Of course, not everyone should confront a violent assailant. That is a decision each person has to make for themselves in the moment, weighing the risks of intervening against the regrets of not.
But we can all take actions that don’t require heroic measures.
We can start by doing a better job of watching out for one another. We can look up from our phones now and then and make eye contact with the people around us. When that 16-year-old stepped off that bus in Montgomery County, did anyone around her, even for a brief moment, notice that man was following her and wonder why?
It’s true that it is sometimes not obvious when someone needs help. But sometimes, it is. On Wednesday, a woman in the D.C. area tweeted “shout out to the 2 men who witnessed a drunk vagrant harassing me on the wiehle-reston train @ 9:20 this morning & did absolutely nothing.”
Salazar’s family has set up a GoFundMe page “to support victims of sexual violence and to help put an end to all forms of gender-based violence.” The funds, according to the page, will be donated to two certified organizations, one in Virginia and one in La Paz, Bolivia, where Salazar was from.
As of Wednesday, the page had raised more than $17,000 toward a $20,000 goal.
It had also drawn numerous comments from people who knew Salazar and missed their friend and from people who had never met him but mourned his death as a collective loss.
“I donated because we need more people like this,” one woman wrote.
“This man is a personification of what’s best about America,” one man wrote.
Flood said he wasn’t able to attend the funeral because of the ongoing criminal investigation, but in recent days, he has received emails from women who say that knowing there are people like Salazar in the world make them feel safer.
On the sidewalk across the street from Flood’s home, near the place where he found Salazar that night, a memorial has grown. People have left flowers, a cross and a dream catcher. On a recent afternoon, a single card rested in the leaves.
The person who left it wrote that they were a stranger to Salazar but still felt “heartbroken.” The card read:
“For me, this is a reminder that there are angels among us and that’s what Mr. Salazar is to his community. I will tell my children there was once a man named Patricio and, although he seemed like an ordinary person, he was actually a hero and now he is an angel.”