In almost every big story, there's an episode that distills the drama, a moment that reveals the choices faced by ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
In the Asiana air crash at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, it came in the few minutes that the passengers had to evacuate the plane before flames engulfed it.
No one showed more presence of mind than a flight attendant identified as Jiyeon Kim, a slight woman who carried people as much as twice her size from the plane.
"She was a hero,'' said one passenger, Eugene Anthony Rah. "This tiny little girl was carrying people piggyback, running everywhere with tears running down her face. She was crying, but she was still so calm and helping people.''
The Asiana crash already has bequeathed a legacy of questions and doubt. We ponder whether it was pilot error (Indication: yes). We ask whether an emergency vehicle ran over a victim who died.
We wonder whether the airline gave adequate training to the pilot at the controls of the 777. We marvel that so few people died in what was such a likely catastrophe.
Me? I'm most fascinated by the story of a hero -- a young woman whose Facebook page lists "Titanic'' and "The Devil Wears Prada'' as among her favorite movies.
It's hard to read about the crash without thinking what we'd do if we were in the plight of the Asiana passengers. Would we grab our carry-on luggage? Would we try to save injured passengers? Would we use elbows to get to the exit?
Jiyeon Kim -- some stories spell her name as Ji-yeon Kim -- entertained no such existential problems. She just had to do her duty.
Certainly she had received thorough training as a flight attendant. And certainly she kept herself fit. A photo of her after the crash shows a thin, young woman with long arms, staring at the camera with a mix of befuddlement and exhaustion.
Just what was the extraordinary quality that made her a hero? What set her apart?
We're used to thinking of heroism in terms of action figures like Steven Seagal, men who employ martial-arts moves to combat bad guys taking over a Navy ship.
A quieter quality
Real heroism might reflect something less noisy, less boastful. It might be the willingness to lift someone on your back and carry them when they're twice your size.
It might be the willingness to let tears run down your cheeks while you direct passengers to the exit. In other words, it's not a denial of danger or pain. It's composure under pressure.
There's a famous story that involves 49ers quarterback Joe Montana and John Candy. In the 1989 Super Bowl the 49ers were driving toward the end zone with time winding down.
Suddenly, from the huddle, Montana told his colleagues: "Check it out: Isn't that John Candy?'' The quarterback had such good eyesight that he was able to pick out the comedian. Montana's goofy coolness relaxed the team.
The parallels with the Asiana crash are imperfect. The 49ers were not in a life and death situation.
Yet there was a clarity, a steadiness of purpose to both Joe Montana and Jiyeon Kim. In the tightest circumstances, they focused on others, not themselves. Somehow that produced quiet miracles.