Ronald W. Thomas, the Wellsville volunteer firefighter who died trying to save two drowning fishermen at a trout derby last year, has been posthumously awarded the Carnegie Medal for his bravery, the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission announced Thursday.
The medal comes just a couple of weeks after Thomas became the first recipient of New York State's Volunteer of Valor award.
"I think it's fantastic," his widow, Sue Thomas, told The Buffalo News, about the awards. "I had no idea that there were all these things, that so many people would be aware of him. There's been so much support. It's really been wonderful."
Thomas is among 73 people honored by the Hero Fund this year. His family will receive a medal and a $6,000 grant.
Pittsburgh steelmaker and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie started the fund in 1904 to recognize men and women who risk their lives while saving or attempting to save the lives of others.
On April 29, 2007, Thomas, then 56, was fishing with his son, Ryan, then 23, at the Great Wellsville Trout Derby. The derby had been a family tradition for years.
Ronald Thomas suddenly noticed another father and son in distress: Kevin Allen and his son Daniel became trapped in a whirlpool at the bottom of a small man-made waterfall in the Genesee River.
Thomas, a 35-year veteran of the Dyke Street Engine Company, raced over to the falls and extended a fishing pole toward Daniel, but when the boy went to grab for it, Thomas fell into the water.
About the same time, Kevin Allen broke free from the whirlpool's grasp and made his way to safety. Daniel Allen waded over to a rock and was rescued.
But in the meantime, Ronald Thomas' waders had filled and he became stuck in the violent water. His son then went after him. A witness told The Buffalo News that Ryan Thomas grabbed his father and tried to keep him above the water.
But bystanders saw that Ronald Thomas was beyond saving and pleaded with the son to save himself.
The witness described how Ryan held on to his father's body as long as he could, but finally had to let go.
Sue Thomas said that the love and support her family, church and community has shown her since her husband's passing has helped ease some of the pain.
"It's been a lot of adjustments," she said. She noted that they had been together since she was just 16. " . . . There are still days that it doesn't seem real," she said.
The death has been especially hard for Ryan, she said. "In his heart, he feels he let me down because he didn't save him. But I tell him: 'Your dad wouldn't have wanted it the other way.' "
Sue Thomas said she's comforted by the memorials to her husband as well as the happy memories she has of her last few moments with him.
While her husband often skipped church on the day of the trout derby, he had decided to go that Sunday because his daughter was going to be moving to Maine the following week.
"I really now look back on that and I so appreciate the last Sunday, sitting next to him in church and that last hug and the last kiss . . . before they walked out to the car to go fishing. I'm so thankful we had that."