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Unlikely hero from Baden saves man on Philadelphia subway track

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 12:04 a.m.
Jad Sleiman | Philadelphia Daily News
Christopher Knafelc, 32, and his cousin, Carrie Felinczak, 33, reflect on Knafelc’s lifelong struggle with addiction in Felinczak’s South Philadelphia home on Thursday, March 28, 2013. Knaflec is credited with saving a man who fell off a subway platform at Temple University.

A former Beaver County man trying to rebuild a life decimated by drug addiction risked that life to save another man in Philadelphia.

“I just felt it was the right thing to do,” said Christopher Knafelc, 32, of South Philadelphia, who on Thursday jumped down 6 feet from a subway platform at Temple University to help a 63-year-old man who had fallen onto the track just after a train passed, authorities say.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III called Knafelc a hero at a news conference. Knafelc said he just did what he hopes someone else would have done if he had fallen.

A recovering opiate addict from Baden, Knafelc was convicted of driving under the influence and endangering the welfare of a child as a result of a March 4, 2011, crash in New Sewickley. His daughter Zoey was in the car with him.

“By the grace of God, she didn't have a scratch on her,” he said.

Knafelc said he started fighting to overcome his addiction after his daughter's birth, but the wreck made him choose her over drugs.

“She's going on 3 years old,” he said. “She saved my life.”

He was surprised when the transportation authority wanted to hold a news conference, and he was even more surprised when friends from Western Pennsylvania started calling to tell him he had made national headlines.

“I didn't expect all the attention,” Knafelc said. “I really didn't.”

His mother, a South Philadelphia teacher, said she was not surprised her son risked his life to help someone.

“He'd do anything for anybody,” said Candace Knafelc, 59. “He has a good heart.”

Christopher Knafelc was sitting on a bench about 40 feet from the station entrance just as a train pulled out.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a body flailing,” he said.

Heather Redfern, spokeswoman for the transportation authority, said authorities still don't know why the man fell, but they are sure that Knafelc risked his life to help him.

“Without thinking, he just jumped up and jumped into the track to help this gentleman,” she said.

An employee in the cashier booth notified the authority, which stopped the trains heading south and shut power to the track.

Knafelc stabilized the man's neck until emergency workers arrived and took him to Temple University Hospital. The authority is not releasing the man's name, but he was in stable condition, Redfern said.

The man was removed from the tracks about 10 minutes after he fell, she said.

Carrie Felinczak, Knafelc's cousin, said the media attention has been overwhelming.

“My phone has been ringing since about 8 o'clock in the morning,” said Felinczak, 33, of South Philadelphia.

She and Knafelc grew up a few houses apart in Baden and were raised more like siblings than cousins, she said. They drifted apart when he started using drugs.

“Since his daughter was born, we've seen a lot of the old Christopher back,” Felinczak said.

Knafelc said he visited Temple University on a whim because he wants to resume a college education derailed by his addiction. He said he studied neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh but dropped out.

During his six months in Philadelphia, he said he has been working part-time but is looking for a full-time job and a way back into college.

“I still do plan on going back to medical school,” he said.

He started abusing painkillers when he was 15 or 16 and progressed to heroin, he said.

“What actually hurt me was that I was able to go to college and get good grades and be a drug addict at the same time,” Knafelc said.

Stella Voegel, his grandmother, said Knafelc has made some bad choices but is trying to make some good ones now.

“He's been having a lot of problems, but he's trying to get himself organized again,” said Voegel, 86, of Baden.

One problem is that while living in Beaver County, he drifted toward the same people who encouraged him to become an addict, she said.

“I'm not blaming them,” Voegel said. “I'm blaming him. He had to get away from here.”

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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