"I just feel privileged to have been able to help," Jason Thomas told hundreds of people gathered Wednesday to honor him at the Ohio Supreme Court, where he now works as a security officer. He said many other first- and second-responders at ground zero, including many who lost their lives, were more worthy of being singled out.
Thomas, 32, was living on New York's Long Island at the time of the 2001 attacks. When he heard the news, he skipped his criminal justice class, grabbed his Marine uniform and headed for the twin towers to help.
With another rescuer, he saved the lives of two Port Authority police officers, then disappeared to the next task at hand.
His role came to light when he recently saw the trailer for the Oliver Stone film "World Trade Center" about rescue efforts at the site, which featured the police rescue, and hesitantly came forward with his story. Neither New York authorities nor the film's producers had been able to locate the man who identified himself at the site only as "Sgt. Thomas," and Stone cast him in the movie as a white man though he is black.
A lineup of Ohio dignitaries — including Chief Justice Tom Moyer, Lt. Gov. Bruce Johnson and House Speaker Jon Husted — saw the fact that Thomas never sought credit for his act as evidence of true valor.
"We want to honor you as a living example of what America is at its best, what we all hope we would be if we were in your shoes," said Husted, before issuing Thomas one of several proclamations given to him by the various legislative caucuses, the governor and the high court.
State Sen. Jeff Jacobson said Thomas' bravery and humility will give people a positive story to tell their children about an otherwise devastating day in American history. Thomas dug ceaselessly for survivors though he had a newborn baby at home and thought at times that he would be killed.
"I thought the hole we initially jumped in, that it was going to collapse. The smoke, the fire, I thought for sure I was a goner," he told reporters after the ceremony. "But I had already made my promise to the two police officers in that hole that I was going to get them out. I gave them my word. I couldn't abandon them."
Thomas' wife, Kirsti, said she tried to keep him from returning to the site day after day for more than two weeks after the attacks, but she was not surprised he insisted on going.
"He's always been a Good Samaritan ever since I met him," she said.