ST. PETERSBURG — Gus Hertz ran away from the spotlight the first time authorities hailed him as a hero.
That was June 13, after he and a St. Petersburg fisherman rescued a man who drove off a bridge near the Pinellas Bayway.
A day later, he saved St. Petersburg pilot Rodney Tyoe and another person whose ultralight plane crashed into waters near the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Hertz had been in his boat fishing nearby.
Hertz, who's vacationing here from Virginia, slipped away quietly from both scenes before reporters and TV cameras arrived.
On Thursday morning, he could no longer avoid the attention.
St. Petersburg fire Chief Jim Large presented Hertz, a 37-year-old husband and father of four, with the "Heroic Citizen Award." Mayor Bill Foster also gave him the key to the city.
"Are you the hero?" a TV producer asked as Hertz and his family arrived for the ceremony at Fire Station 11.
"No," Hertz said with a grin. "I'm just the guy who helped."
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Gina Zimmerlund still has nerve damage in her hands from the plane crash. It makes it difficult to touch other people.
But that didn't stop the 55-year-old from embracing Hertz when she and Tyoe saw him for the first time since last week's rescue.
A pack of reporters and TV cameramen recorded the meeting, which took place a few minutes before Thursday's award ceremony in the fire station parking lot.
Hertz's family, including his parents who flew down from Georgia, watched as well.
"Thank you so much," Zimmerlund whispered in Hertz's ear, her voice wavering.
"It was my pleasure," he murmured back. "I did what anybody else would do."
Tyoe, a 74-year-old former firefighter, gripped Hertz's hand and brought him into a bear hug.
"Boy, am I glad to see you," he told the younger man. "I'm glad you were there and handled it like you did."
Together, they recounted the rescue story for the cameras.
That afternoon, Tyoe and Zimmerlund, Tyoe's son's girlfriend, climbed to about 100 feet when the wind started pushing around their ultralight plane. They hit the water fast, flipping over.
Hertz, who happened to be fishing in the area, raced over and carried the two to shore in his boat. Authorities were shocked when they realized Hertz was the same rescuer from a day earlier.
News spread fast. The story ricocheted around the Internet. Soon, Good Morning America called.
"I've gotten way more attention than I ever wanted from this," Hertz said. "It's made me a better person."
On Thursday, media followed the two families around as they checked out the fire station, the same one dispatched to both crashes.
Fellow rescuer Kevin Daly, the fisherman who helped at the car crash scene, held the Hertzes' 8-month-old son. Daly got an award as well.
• • •
After it was all over, Hertz and Tyoe met in the middle of the fire station.
The TV cameras were gone. The mayor had left.
The two men finally had a moment to themselves.
They shook hands one last time, repeating the same line to one another:
"It was so nice to meet you."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.