LINCOLN — When interviewed more than a year ago about saving children trapped in a burning school bus, Nebraskan Phil Petr said anyone would have helped those kids.
When interviewed Friday about winning the Carnegie Medal for his act of heroism, the Blue Hill man hadn't changed his story.
“There's not much you would have done different had it been you,” he said. “You sure weren't going to leave them in there.”
What the 47-year-old Petr did on Sept. 5, 2012, was climb into a smoke-filled school bus and pass three children outside to another rescuer. Within moments of getting the kids and himself out, flames and smoke engulfed the bus.
Moments earlier, Petr had been following behind a semitrailer truck that collided with the bus at the intersection of two gravel roads southeast of Blue Hill. The collision killed drivers of both vehicles along with two students. Five students survived.
The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropy that recognizes acts of civilian heroism, announced Friday that Petr was one of 20 new honorees.
“It was an unbelievable thing he did,” said Douglas Chambers, spokesman for the commission.
The Carnegie Medal, which comes with a $5,000 award, is given annually to 80 to 100 North America recipients who “risk their lives to an extraordinary degree” to save others. About 10 people are nominated for every recipient selected, Chambers said.
Others recognized by the commission Friday had run into burning buildings, snatched a child about to be swept away in a river and stood in front of a deranged man armed with a gun who wanted to kill a co-worker.
Petr was the first person on the scene of the horrific crash near Blue Hill. A cattle farmer, he was working in a nearby pasture where the collision occurred.
When he got out of his pickup, he first noticed a young boy who managed to get out of the bus on his own. The boy told him other children were in the bus.
The impact of the collision jammed the main door, and the back emergency exit was blocked by hay bales. Using a pry bar, Petr smashed out side windows and called to the children.
But they were too scared to move. Ron Meyer, a local farmer who was the second person on the scene, boosted Petr into the bus. The bus was already filling with smoke as Petr handed three children to Meyer.
The two other surviving students got out through broken glass in the main door.
The crash killed students Caroline Thallman, 10, and Dustin Tesdahl, 18, both of Blue Hill. Also killed were semi driver Travis Witte, 21, of Blue Hill, and bus driver Marla Wentworth, 59, of Red Cloud.
Chambers said the commission most likely nominated Petr after learning about his actions from a newspaper article.
Pittsburgh steel magnate Andrew Carnegie started the commission with a $5 million gift in 1904, several months after a coal mine explosion at Harwick, Pa., claimed 181 lives, including those of two would-be rescuers. Since then, the commission has awarded more than 9,500 medals and $34 million.
The commission sometimes provides stipends for the survivors of medal recipients who die or are disabled in their rescue efforts. It also provides some scholarships for the children of recipients.
Petr said he received a call from the commission on Thursday informing him that he had won the award, but he has not yet received the medal.
Although he hasn't decided for sure what he will do with the $5,000, he said he won't keep it for himself. He wants it to help children at Blue Hill school or the families affected by the crash.
“It was a surprise to me,” he said.