Casey Rivara
A memorial in Rocklin, California, where Casey Rivara was hit by a vehicle and killed last week. Image Credit: Angela Wimsatt-Thomas/Washington Post

Rocklin, California: Casey Rivara helped those who needed it, and on Thursday evening, at the intersection of Stanford Ranch Road and Park Drive in Rocklin, California, those who needed help were a mama duck and her eight to 10 ducklings.

Mama Duck and her train of tiny poof balls were struggling to navigate an intersection of two busy thoroughfares where the speed limit reaches 45 mph, witness Angela Wimsatt-Thomas told The Washington Post. Rivara had noticed the danger, gotten out of his vehicle, helped stop traffic and then half-escorted, half-shooed them across two westbound lanes. He made sure each of them made it to the safety of the sidewalk.

With traffic seemingly at a standstill, Rivara started to return to his car as fellow drivers honked and clapped, Wimsatt-Thomas said. He downplayed his brief gig moonlighting as a shepherd when Wimsatt-Thomas gave him an attaboy. It wasn't a big deal, he told her.

Seconds later, and mere feet away from his two children who had been waiting in the car, Rivara stepped into an open lane of traffic at the precise moment a 17-year-old was about to drive through the intersection.

She hit him, and Rivara died at the scene, Wimsatt-Thomas said.

Potent example of the power of tiny acts of kindness

In the days since, Rivara's death has resonated with people across the country as a potent example of the power of tiny acts of kindness, especially toward the most vulnerable. A memorial has sprouted at the intersection, in the median close to where Rivara died and on the sidewalk where he guided the ducks to safety. It includes classic tributes of grief like flowers, but also some specific to what Rivara's aunt described as her nephew's "final act of kindness" - a host of yellow rubber duckies.

Wimsatt-Thomas, 48, her son William Wimsatt, 12, and her 10-year-old daughter were on their way home from William's elementary school choir concert when they got caught at a red light around 8:15 p.m.

While waiting to turn left, Wimsatt-Thomas saw a man ahead of them waving his arms. She then noticed a waddle of ducks coming toward her, quite slowly because all but one were ducklings. They went into the middle of the intersection before turning to head right toward her.

That's when Rivara came to their rescue, getting out of his car, which was two lanes to the right of Wimsatt-Thomas. He used his arms to usher them away from Wimsatt-Thomas's vehicle, across two lanes of traffic and onto the sidewalk, next to the landscaping outside a Starbucks. He then retraced his steps, passing her Audi on the way to his car.

Wimsatt-Thomas and her two children applauded his duck-saving skills as other drivers did the same, honking their horns to show their approval. As he passed, she told him, "Good job. Thank you for doing that."

Rivara downplayed his actions as he walked into the open lane just to the right of her car.

"That's when he was struck," she said. "It's the most horrific thing I've ever experienced or witnessed."

Wimsatt-Thomas and William screamed. Her daughter, who was still watching the ducks, didn't see the crash. "And then I picked up my phone. I dialed 911. I mean, I was shaking so bad it took me a second to actually be able to even dial 911."

Then, she realized Rivara had been returning to a vehicle. She told her children to stay inside as she got out of the car to the sound of screaming. "So I went over, and there was two little kids in the car, and they were yelling, 'That's my dad! That's my dad! Is he okay?!'"

All Wimsatt-Thomas could say was, "I don't know. The ambulance is coming. The police are coming."

They told her that their mother was in Florida, so the eldest, Rivara's 11-year-old daughter, called her grandmother. Wimsatt-Thomas told the grandmother what had happened and that she needed to get there as soon as possible. The woman said she was 20 minutes away but would get there as fast as she could. In the meantime, Wimsatt-Thomas kept watching Rivara's two children after deputizing a high school softball player on the scene to babysit hers.

In a news release, the Rocklin Police Department said a teenage driver, who remained at the scene, was behind the wheel of the vehicle that hit Rivara. Investigators found no evidence that the driver was impaired by drugs or alcohol or that they had been using their phone at the time of the crash, Capt. Scott Horrillo told The Post. They haven't filed any charges against the driver but are still investigating, he added.

Rivara had been driving his two children home after their swim practice, his aunt said in a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for his family. She described him as "the kindest, most amazing husband and father," explaining that he had met his wife when he was 17 after she started attending his high school as an exchange student from Hong Kong. The two fell "madly in love and remained inseparable partners" for the next 23 years. Rivara had recently started working at the school his children attend so he could be close to them. He also loved being able to help other kids.

"Even his last act in this world was a sign of his compassion," his aunt wrote.

Wimsatt-Thomas said Rivara's "heroic act" revealed his character. No one else got out of their car to stop traffic and help the ducks, but that was Rivara's first instinct.

"Beyond even thinking about his own safety, he thought about the ducks," Wimsatt-Thomas said.

Like his mother, William is struggling with memories of the crash. He said he's suffering through flashbacks and nightmares after watching Rivara violently die just feet away from him. But he, too, is trying to focus on what Rivara was doing before that, for being "willing to put his life on the line to be able to save another animal's life."

William didn't know Rivara outside of a few brief moments in the waning daylight of an otherwise unremarkable trip home from his concert. But he said his death helped him understand that life is precious. And although William admits that he's "only 12" and hasn't seen "a lot of the world," what he watched unfold Thursday evening made him realize something about it.

"He did something truly wonderful and amazing in his last moments," the boy said, "and I know that not many people get that chance."