Former classmates and colleagues are remembering one of the many victims of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. Philip "P.J." Thomas was a captain and harbor pilot who along with his three children died when the storm roared through Grand Bahama island on Sept. 1.
While the official death toll in the Bahamas from Dorian stands at 50, officials say some 2,500 are missing.
Thomas lived in McLean's Town, a small community on Grand Bahama's East End. It's an area that was devastated by Dorian's 180 mph winds and 20-foot storm surge. Details are sketchy, but from what they've learned from Thomas' wife, Barri, his friends say when the storm hit, he and his family were engaged in a desperate struggle for survival.
On a GoFundMe page created by his friends, a former classmate, Matthew Arnold writes, "Philip fought to rescue his family, but only succeeded in saving his wife, before heading into the sea after his children. His last action in life was ensuring Barri survived."
After Thomas and his three children were lost in the rising waters, Barri was rescued by a Bahamian Defense Force helicopter crew. She was taken to a hospital in Nassau and has since been released.
Thomas was a graduate of the Maritime College at the State University of New York, where Arnold met him. He says Thomas was well-liked and respected by his classmates. "He was small-framed," Arnold says. "He was all of 5 feet tall, but we all looked up to him."
After graduating from the Maritime College, Thomas returned to Grand Bahama, where at age 21, he was the youngest trainee pilot ever hired by the Freeport Harbour Co. During his time there, he guided the largest cruise ship in the world at the time, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, into drydock.
Several years later, joining with other senior harbor pilots, he helped create an independent professional group, the Bahamas Maritime Pilots Association.
Besides being an experienced harbor pilot, Thomas also worked as a fishing guide specializing in bonefish.
"They're extremely elusive fish and very hard to catch," Arnold says.
"Philip was an expert bonefishing guide. His father had a company, raised him and taught him the ways of the sea." At a young age, Thomas worked as a guide with his father's company and later struck out on his own, Arnold says. "He was a local legend when it came to bonefishing."
Thomas grew up in McLean's Town and continued to live there. Another friend, John Cirenza, says, "It's a small town — maybe 40 to 80 people — two streets, one church, one restaurant. He was family to maybe half the town."
Arnold says pictures that friends have posted from McLean's Town since the storm show utter destruction.
"The actual lot that Philip's home was on is empty," he says.
Arnold says Thomas had at least 10 boats and a couple of cars parked outside his house. "There's nothing on his plot of land anymore at all. And most of McLean's Town is destroyed in a similar nature."
Like most Bahamians, Thomas had seen many hurricanes. He told friends he and his family would be fine weathering Dorian in his home in McLean's Town. Arnold says his last text was to a friend who asked if he was going to evacuate. "'He said, 'No, we're going to sit back here and watch the trees blow,' " Arnold says. "But I guess they didn't know how hard it was really going to blow."
In addition to the GoFundMe effort, Cirenza plans to load a couple of fishing boats with construction equipment, including excavators, and take them to McLean's Town to help clean up the community where Thomas made his life.