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Lost in South Philly, her pleas for her dying husband went ignored, until one man stopped to help

Following the Hugh Jackman show at the Wells Fargo Center, tragedy struck a suburban couple. One man stepped up to help.

Tina Brubaker, 80, at her Wynnewood home with a photo of her and her husband, Bill, who died earlier this month.
Tina Brubaker, 80, at her Wynnewood home with a photo of her and her husband, Bill, who died earlier this month.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

Tina Brubaker was lost in South Philadelphia and her husband was dying in their car next to her.

Just an hour earlier, Brubaker’s husband, Bill, 82, had taken her hand as they watched actor Hugh Jackman wrap up his one-man show at the Wells Fargo Center on Oct. 2.

“He patted my hand and said, ‘You know, I really had a good time,’” Brubaker, 80, of Wynnewood, recalled.

Now Bill was losing consciousness beside her. She tried to drive his Nissan Rogue through the unfamiliar streets of South Philly with one hand while the other held tightly to her husband’s. Brubaker pulled over near Front Street and Packer Avenue, waving frantically with her left hand out of the driver’s window for help.

She couldn’t use her right hand. It was still holding onto Bill’s.

“I tried to get people’s attention,” Brubaker said. “They saw me but they all kept going.”

All of them except for Jim “Frenchy” French Sr., 55, of South Philly.

“He is my angel. He got me through this,” Brubaker said. “If he hadn’t stopped, I’d still be there.”

Brubaker’s husband died that night, but because of French, her faith in humanity did not.

“In spite of all the nastiness in this world you will find someone who could be your angel and help you in a time of need," she said. “I was certainly aching for an angel that night."

Bill and Tina Brubaker, who were married 60 years, enjoyed attending theater and orchestra shows. Whenever they traveled to Philly, Bill drove and brought along his oxygen condenser, which he needed since being diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The couple enjoyed Jackman’s show that night, but left early to beat the crowd up the steps.

When Bill Brubaker got to the top, he began having trouble breathing.

Once in the concourse, he could only take 15 steps at a time before having to stop. Seemingly out of nowhere, a young staffer came over and asked if Bill needed a wheelchair. Then he wheeled him to the couple’s car.

Bill Brubaker told his wife and the staffer he was fine to drive, but once he was in the driver’s seat, Tina Brubaker saw his hands become gnarled and his head drop.

She got him around to the passenger’s seat and she got behind the wheel.

“I had never driven his car. I had no idea how to travel around South Philly,” Brubaker said. “I thought, ‘I’ll just follow the cars and see where they take me.'”

When she found herself lost among warehouses, she pulled over.

Jim “Frenchy” French Sr. had just left his shift as an event staff supervisor at the Wells Fargo Center. By day, he’s a Philadelphia Housing Authority maintenance mechanic.

French saw other cars pass Brubaker by — one even ran a red light to avoid stopping near her — but he didn’t hesitate to pull over.

“I guess my human being instincts kicked in,” he said.

Brubaker told French she thought her husband had had a stroke and might be dead.

French called for an ambulance and then he got in touch with Brubaker’s children.

When Brubaker heard sirens, she told French to go home, but he insisted on staying with her until her daughter arrived, about 45 minutes later.

“I wasn’t going to leave her in that area, not knowing where she’s at,” French said. “She just had a traumatic thing go on."

As they waited, French told Brubaker he’d seen the couple in the Wells Fargo Center and it was he who sent the staffer over with the wheelchair to help.

The strangers talked about a lot that night. French, Brubaker learned, has seen his own share of tragedy. His son — a paramedic — died in 2013. Maybe his son’s desire to help others in distress compels French, too.

“I guess a little bit of him comes out in me,” he said.

Bill Brubaker was later pronounced dead at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. His wife had one wish for his funeral — that French attend. Though he couldn’t stay for the service, during which Brubaker spoke highly of the man she now calls "my angel,” he did attend the viewing.

For his part, French doesn’t think his actions are worthy of praise, or perhaps, even this story.

“I did what I think everybody should do,” he said. “It seems like we only help each other in this world when a big tragedy happens, but these times matter, too.”