Hundreds gather to say goodbye to police officer, firefighters killed in separate accidents

It was Sunday when the city lost three off-duty first responders in separate vehicular accidents and it was on Friday when the city said farewell to the men: A police officer known for his caring attitude and two firefighters as close as brothers.

Officer Rodney Thomas, 52, died after a Porsche ran him down about 12:45 a.m. near the high-rise and sped away. Firefighters Tommy Ashby, 28, and Scott Blanchard, 27, died when the truck they were riding in hit a tree in Long Beach, Miss., about an hour later.

“Today is a tragic day for the city of New Orleans,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said before he walked into Thomas’ funeral at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. “All of them were taken too early from us.”

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said while the loss is tough for his department, it was not surprising that Thomas died while trying to make sure others were safe.

“He’s an example of what every officer should be,” Serpas said.

The hit-and-run accident in which Thomas was killed was “a gut check for the community at large,” said Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who was one of hundreds from various agencies who paid their respects.

Some mourners came from as far away as Mobile, Ala., and Jackson County, Miss., to honor the 2nd District officer.

Jackson County Sheriff’s Sgt. John Wickham said he made the trip to the city since all police officers are part of a “brotherhood.”

“At any given time any of us could face the same fate,” he said.

Police have arrested three men in Thomas’ death and continue to search for two other people of interest in the case.

The fact that two of the suspects — Justin McKey and Bill Cager — bonded out of jail before Thomas could be buried was “distasteful,” Normand said. The local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police has said bail for the suspects was set too low and that they fear the men are flight risks.

Serpas said he expects additional arrests to be made in the case.

“The persons who ran over and killed him will pay a deep price,” he said.

A hearse drove Thomas’ body past the New Orleans Police Department’s 2nd District headquarters on Magazine Street, near the corner of Napoleon Avenue, as somber officers saluted him one last time before he was buried at Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery.

Hours later, a similar scene played out at a Chalmette funeral home.

A row of firefighters in their dress uniforms slowly raised their arms in unison to salute the hearses that carried the bodies of Ashby and Scott.

Those who knew the two said they were lifelong friends who were as close as brothers.

Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell said his department lost two young and promising firefighters who left indelible marks on the NOFD.

“You see the turnout today,” McConnell said, noting the number of mourners who attended the funeral. “You would’ve thought these folks had 25, 30 years on the job.”

Ashby had been a member of the NOFD since September 2007; Blanchard joined the department in August 2010.

Friday was the day Ashby and Blanchard would have normally reported for duty.

Stories about their efforts at fires and the natural ability they showed for the work of a firefighter were shared, McConnell said.

“You could see it was in them,” he said. “This is what they wanted to do. They were born for it.”