Spokane’s favorite average guy came home to a bigger than average party.
At least 1,200 people gathered in Riverfront Park on Friday to hoot and holler for Capt. Scott O’Grady, the local boy who made good - or at least made it out alive.
His survival skills were almost tested again on what was proclaimed “Scott O’Grady Day” by city officials who welcomed the Lewis and Clark High School graduate home.
Hundreds of children swarmed around him, offering miniature flags, baseball caps, magazine covers and even bare skin for him to sign.
They pushed and shoved around O’Grady, 29, who at first covered his head with his hands and cried “Help, Mom!” but quickly set rules for the children and made them exit the stage - in single file - as soon as their turn was up.
He posed for pictures, shook hands with fellow servicemen and hugged old friends, ignoring Air Force officials who urged him to hurry up.
O’Grady was wowing a crowd once again.
“He is just the most wonderful thing to happen to us here in a long time,” said Dean Byrns, whose son is stationed on the USS Kearsarge and supported the crews who rescued O’Grady from Bosnia on June 8.
“He’s our humble hero,” Byrns said.
While stationed overseas June 2, O’Grady’s F-16 was shot down by a Serb missile. He spent six days avoiding capture in the war-torn country, rescued finally by dozens of Marines.
Cheers from flag-wavers went up for O’Grady when he stepped on the stage Friday afternoon, and the pilot spread his arms at the crowd in wonder.
“Again, I just can’t believe this,” he muttered.
He accepted a plaque from city officials, a flag from Rep. George Nethercutt and a gift basket from local business owners. He was invited to be in two parades next year and giggled with his mother, Mary Lou Scardapane, when City Councilman Orville Barnes referred to Scott O’Grady Day.
“You’ve captured our hearts, Scott O’Grady,” said Chris Schnug, incoming chairwoman for Spokane’s Chamber of Commerce. “You’ve reminded us how important our country is, our community and our families … Thanks for renewing our spirits.”
As usual, O’Grady tried to push the attention to others he insists are “the real heroes.”
“I see some veterans out there, so do me a favor and go shake their hands,” O’Grady told the crowd. “Thank them for what they’ve done for your country.”
A handful of children came on stage during the ceremony to pose questions about what O’Grady refers to as his “six-day camping trip” in Bosnia.
He told Brent Baker, 8, that ants taste like lemons and assured Rachel Kreutz, 5, that his first real meal after being rescued was a military-issued dinner that was “dee-licious.”
Ten-year-old Daniel Biddle wanted to know if O’Grady worried nobody would pick him up after his F-16 was shot down.
O’Grady said his training taught him to never give up.
“I thought I’d be there maybe two days or a week, but then I told myself I better be prepared to survive as long as it takes,” O’Grady said. “I never lost hope.”
Cameron Baker, 6, stood on a chair to reach the microphone, looked O’Grady in the eyes and demanded, “What does your sweat taste like when you drink it out of your socks?”
Chuckling, O’Grady shook his head.
“Awful,” he said. “Don’t try it.”
After the ceremony in the park, O’Grady went to the Chamber of Commerce with friends and city business leaders for a much smaller gathering designed to “slow things down,” said Rich Hadley, the chamber’s president.
There, he accepted more gifts, including a giant children’s Ant Farm from a group of fellow Irishmen. Holding the boxed gift in his hands for a photograph, O’Grady grinned and announced, “This is not an endorsement.”
A group of local Marines was at the ceremony, which O’Grady said made him feel “much more comfortable.”
He told city leaders how much he enjoyed growing up in Spokane, and asked them to do everything in their power to “maintain the family atmosphere” that he’s so fond of.
“I have wonderful memories of Spokane, it’s my home,” O’Grady said. “I won’t ever forget this place.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Bonnie Harris Staff writer Staff writer Kristina Johnson contributed to this report.