Inside Suburban Station, a wrenching tale of horror and compassion

Lamar Anderson at Suburban Station, near the spot where a man was viciously assaulted: Anderson helped with the arrest.

LAMAR ANDERSON wasn't sure what the sound was.

Suburban Station is usually a blur of movement and noise, but that thump was different from any other background noise he'd grown accustomed to.

When he turned to see what it was, he almost couldn't believe it. It was the sound of metal being slammed into a man's skull. Steps away, at the ticket counter, a man was beating another over the head with what police would later discover was a pipe wrench.

Anderson, 37, homeless for 11 years, is one of the many men and women who find their way to the station at dawn after a night on the streets or in one of the city's shelters.

One of four brothers who have all been homeless for varying stretches, Anderson usually can be found sitting on one of the dark wooden benches near the ticket office, charging his tablet and using the station's free WiFi until police close up the station for the night and he returns to the streets.

He was on a bench around 6 a.m. Jan. 26 when he saw Jeremy Wilson, 38, attacking another man. The victim, a regular commuter, was buying tokens when Wilson suddenly came up behind him and repeatedly hit him over the head, until the 58-year-old man crumpled to the ground. Surveillance video shows 12 blows. Police say it was a random attack by a homeless man with a lengthy criminal record in more than one state.

When Anderson, short and stocky, realized what was happening, he jumped to his feet, followed by his brother and a friend, and rushed over to the men. He stood between the victim, who was bleeding profusely from his head, and Wilson, who was screaming that he was going to kill the man.

Anderson didn't stop to think, or fear that Wilson might turn his savage attack on him. He screamed at Wilson: "Back up! If you come at me, I'm going to break your face." Wilson, still wielding the wrench, circled Anderson and the victim.

Anderson didn't budge. "You're not going to do this," he told Wilson.

Wilson backed off and began walking around the station, with Anderson following close behind. "You're not leaving the station," he told him. "Not after what you did."

Police arrived shortly afterward and arrested Wilson, charging him with attempted murder and related offenses.

People may not always notice Anderson, but from his perch in Suburban Station, not much gets past him: How quick people are to turn away at any sign of trouble, unless it's to take out their phones to record it all. How people hurry past him and the other homeless, and how even as they try to avoid eye contact, he still can catch glimpses of judgment. He knows what many think of him and the others - lazy, crazy, dirty people always pestering someone for change. He also knows what something like this might reinforce to some: that homeless folks are violent.

But that would be wrong, and only half the story here.

'That just wasn't right'

A homeless man did attack an innocent bystander.

But another homeless man and his homeless friends came to his rescue.

"I didn't really think about it," Anderson said. "That man was just minding his own business, he didn't know that other man from a can of spray paint, and then he's suddenly leaking blood. That just wasn't right."

Anderson insists he doesn't ask anyone for money. He gets by on about $100 in food stamps and food and shelter from a nearby organization. "That's one thing I can't do," he says. "I got to wash my behind. I got to make sure certain things is right. I can't be a statistic. I go to the shelter to eat and sleep and wash up. I try not to be a headache for anyone."

He says he's not battling the challenges that some other homeless people have, like drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness. He's had jobs - he cooks - but has had trouble finding a new one without a permanent address. He had a home, but had "landlord problems." He has some family but says he doesn't want to be a burden: "I'll do good or bad on my own."

As for the attention, Anderson is humbled but says he doesn't expect anything in return. Since the attack, he can't stop thinking of the victim. "I really want him to be OK. I wake up thinking about him and wondering what I could have done differently to help him more."

"I've always wanted to do right," he said. "One day I'll get my blessing."

Police brought Anderson, his brother, and his friend into headquarters for statements. The cops shook their hands and thanked them for stepping in. He probably saved the man's life. The victim suffered a fractured skull and faces a long recovery.

When cops asked Anderson whether he had anything to add to his statement, he simply said: "I hope the guy is all right."

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel considers Anderson a heroic figure.

"Most people walk past the homeless without even a glance," said Nestel. "Lamar was invisible until someone's life was in danger. That's when he became Captain America."

Anderson shies away from being called a hero. But he can't escape the other description: homeless.

After leaving the police station, he made his way back to St. John's Hospice, a Center City shelter, to bed down for the night before another morning walking the half-dozen or so blocks to his favorite bench inside Suburban Station.

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