A cartoon depicting a 1947 plane crash was seen by almost 10 million people on Facebook by mid-day Thursday. It was retweeted thousands of times on Twitter.

Why did an almost seven-decade old story told in a series of black, white and red illustrations resonate with so many people?

The most obvious reason is that the man at the center of the drama – a young co-pilot who soothes passengers as the plane goes down and then risks his life to rescue them when it crashes – is Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.

But when cartoonist Matthew Inman, the mastermind behind The Oatmeal, the popular Web site where Inman uses comic strips for rich storytelling, first heard it, the unbelievable tale struck a chord beyond celebrity.

As is so often true when we hear of others’ heroism, we wonder how we would have reacted. The Pan Am plane Roddenberry was co-piloting caught fire and he believed he and everyone on board was going to die. Yet, Roddenberry walked the aisle assuring passengers they were going to be fine.

Inman was moved by Roddenberry’s “unfettered humanity in the last moments before he died,” he said in an interview. The future futurist saw people who were utterly helpless and his instinct was to help.

Then, when the plane nosedived into the Syrian desert, Roddenberry, his ribbed broken, ran back into the burning plane to find survivors. Inman, who watched his own home burn to the ground when he was just eight years old (he did a comic about that, too) couldn’t imagine running back into the fire.

Though Inman wanted the story to illustrate human kindness and resilience, and not be an ode to Roddenberry, he couldn’t deny how inspiring the pilot-turned-television writer was in his own right.

“No wonder his stories are so compelling and crazy and heartfelt,” Inman said. “He has this whole other life before being a TV writer. Most of us have one.”

Inman’s comics are typically lighter, infused with humor, even the one about losing his home, but he let this story hang heavy, apologizing to his millions of fans for the dark subject.

But he ended the strip with a note of inspiration: “So get up, and help someone.”

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