Tissues got a workout Thursday at a celebration of local heroes — especially when a Petaluma man honored for pulling a woman from a burning car dedicated his award to his late son, whose dream to become a firefighter was dashed by an accident that paralyzed him.
Tears came to many of the almost 400 people at the American Red Cross "Real Heroes" breakfast in Rohnert Park as contractor Chris Cox accepted a bravery award for what he did upon spotting a car that had crashed and caught fire in Cotati last January.
Cox, 48, recalled in a video shown to the crowd at the DoubleTree Hotel that his son Danny, a former track star and campus comic at Petaluma High, came to mind as he ran to the car.
Since Danny was a small boy he aspired to be a firefighter, Cox said. The father remembered him saying, "I want to help people. I want to save people."
But Danny Cox was 19 when he died eight months ago in a crash on Highway 101 between Petaluma and Novato. A year earlier, his neck was fractured and his spine damaged in a diving accident in South Lake Tahoe.
Danny was rendered quadriplegic but in the course of a grueling year of recovery learned to drive his Dodge, equipped with special controls. Authorities concluded that last Aug. 7, he intentionally drove into trees alongside Highway 101 near Olompali State Historic Park.
Five months later, his dad stopped his work truck, jumped a fence and ran to a car that was sending up black smoke in a Cotati field.
"I felt like he was shining down on me, working through me," Chris Cox said in the video shown at the Red Cross breakfast.
Though blinded by smoke, he opened the car door and took hold of the small dog that cowered on the lap of the female driver. He set the dog on the ground, then used the Leatherman tool he carries on his belt to cut the woman's seatbelt.
A second good Samaritan helped him lift the driver, Ricki Ann Thiele, 43, of Rohnert Park and carry her a safe distance from the fire. Both she and the dog survived.
Cox said in the video, "I thought of my son as I was doing that.
"I thought, &‘I'm doing this for you, buddy. This is what you wanted to do.'"
Upon receiving his award, one of 15 presented at the breakfast, Cox told the audience, "I'm mostly honored to have saved a life."
"Real Heroes" awards went also to:
— Santa Rosa eye surgeon Gary Barth for his travels to Nepal to help restore the vision of vast numbers of rural Nepalis and Indians.
— Retired Casa Grande High teacher Tom Furrer for 30 years of work leading the students who restored Petaluma's Adobe Creek and operate the nation's only school-based fish hatchery.
— Lake County public-safety and security officers Gabe Lopez, Eric Vinyard, Josh Dye, Steven Atkinson and Bryan Atkins for their actions to save two young men burned in a house fire at Hidden Valley Lake.