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Metra essay award winner urges awareness of surroundings

Nam-Joong 'Peter' Hwang senior StevensHigh School wlatter portiMetra's seventh-annual Safety Poster Essay Contest this summer. (Courtesy Peter Hwang)

Nam-Joong "Peter" Hwang, a senior at Stevenson High School, won the latter portion of Metra's seventh-annual Safety Poster and Essay Contest this summer. (Courtesy Peter Hwang)

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Updated: October 7, 2013 12:37PM

After winning an essay contest about the importance of personal responsibility in the realm of public safety, one Stevenson High School student jumped into a first-hand lesson in the applications of public safety — and from that experience, finds himself re-evaluating his entire position.

“I could have been seriously injured,” SHS senior Nam-Joong “Peter” Hwang said of his unexpected transition into vigilante this summer. “My mom said ‘We’re proud of you, but please don’t do anything like that again.’”

Hwang entered Metra’s seventh-annual Safety Poster and Essay Contest, which asks Chicagoland students to design posters or write essays promoting personal responsibility around their tracks and trains; Hwang submitted an essay, and learned in July that his work won the high school essay division. But personal safety was not much of a concern in the Lincolnshire resident’s own life — until the night he decided to foil a robbery.

“It made me re-evaluate the idea of safety,” Hwang said of the foot-chase that ended with him in a hospital.

The two entirely unrelated events that criss-crossed through his summer began in April, when Hwang learned about Metra’s competition, which annually draws hundreds of entries from six counties. Hwang said he has “no experience” with Metra, other than having to drive over their tracks on the way to Lake Forest for the internship he had a year ago; he has never parked in the Prairie View Station lot and crossed those tracks on the way to school, either.

“I was looking for an opportunity to showcase some of the writing skills I’ve learned,” Hwang said. “The essay contest was one of those opportunities.”

He wrote “MetraMan,” the tale of an inattentive driver who stops on a set of tracks but is rescued from an oncoming train by a Superman-esque hero. Hwang stressed the importance of paying attention to one’s surroundings.

“We are obligated to always look and listen, to be aware of our surroundings,” he wrote in the essay’s conclusion.

Then he put his words into action.

In July, Hwang was in the middle of a six-week summer study program in Ann Arbor, Mich.; at about 9:30 p.m. one night, he and some other participants were hanging out on a stoop next to the University of Michigan campus. Hwang noticed a tall man sprinting down the street, and thought that looked out of place.

“And I hear a woman cry out ‘Stop him, stop him, he stole my phone!’” he said.

Hwang said he still does not know why he jumped off that stoop, left his friends and ran to intercept the robber.

“I yell ‘Stop, let go of the phone,’ not really knowing what I’m trying to accomplish,” he said.

A young man and young woman came from out of nowhere and joined Hwang in the chase. He hoped they knew what they were doing — he did not know where he was anymore, and had never been in a fistfight.

And he certainly would not have any moves to make if this guy turned out to have a weapon.

The robber ran himself into a dead-end on campus. He dropped the stolen phone — then he turned and rushed Hwang.

“He comes up to me and punches me twice in my right eye,” Hwang recalled. “That causes me to go down, dazed.”

The two other pursuers attack the man, but he fights them off — and in a scene straight from a superhero comic book, a van full of accomplices pulls up. Someone inside opened the door and the robber jumped in.

But one of the other chasers got a photo of the license plate. Hwang was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment of his bloody nose and the cuts around his eye.

He called his parents from the hospital — they freaked out pretty bad. The next day, he learned that Ann Arbor police had arrested a suspect, charging him with robbery and assault.

The incident left the creator of MetraMan thinking.

“I appreciate the fact that this was my first reaction,” Hwang said. “But, I want to be a role model for my brother, who’s going into eighth grade.

“I would ask him not to do the same,” Hwang concluded. “Call 911. Figure out what the authorities can do.”

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