San Francisco man who died saving daughter gets lift from strangers

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- The Bay Area community is rallying around a San Francisco family whose father died last weekend during a drowning accident in the Sacramento Delta.

Donors have contributed more than $36,000 to Roni Avila's GoFundMe page over the past four days and now an anonymous donor has stepped up to provide a free burial site in the city, which will allow his relatives to visit his grave whenever they would like.

Avila, 40, enjoyed taking his two young daughters to the Delta to fish, swim and boat. On June 25, tragedy struck when the kayak carrying him and Sophia, his 5-year-old daughter, flipped over.

Avila was able to save his daughter by hoisting her on his shoulders until a passing jet skier was able to pluck her out of the water but Avila didn't make it. His body was pulled from the water several hours later.

His passing has devastated his family.

"I miss everything about him because he always made us happy," said Maria, his 11-year-old daughter through tears. "And he kept our family together and I'm sure my mom will still keep us together but it just feels like something's missing."


The family shared videos of Avila singing popular Guatemalan tunes. He was a carpenter by trade, the family's breadwinner and generous to all around him, his relatives said.

"I would never see him pass by someone and not give them money," Maria said.

Strangers are repaying Avila's generosity. As of June 30, donors have raised over $36,000 for the Avila's GoFundMe account.

"I just want to thank everyone, said Avila's wife, Tamara Hernandez, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador. "I don't have words (other than to) say thanks."

She said a viewer who watched the family's story on KTVU decided to donate the burial site for her husband.


His older daughter had previously told KTVU that she wanted her father to be buried locally and not in his homeland of Guatemala, as some family members had requested. She said she preferred a local interment because she would be able to visit him whenever she wanted.

"It was just an extraordinary act of generosity," said Monica Williams, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. "The really lovely piece of that is that this grave is in our military section where veterans are buried and although Mr. Avila was not a veteran, everyone thought that this was really appropriate that this hero as he was, is going to be buried with heroes."

"It's not like (the donor) did it because he knew my dad," Maria said. "He did it becasue he felt like my dad was a hero and he felt the need to give him his place."

The man, who requested anonymity, was at the cemeteryto transfer the plot to Avila's family when he ran into them.

"When he met us he said, 'Do you have good grades?' and I told him I was on the honor roll and I had good grades and he told me that he was a student sponsor and he said he wanted to put me and my sister in a private school," Maria said.

"It's phenomenal," said Paul Recktenwald, head of school at the Mission Dolores Academy on 16th Street between Dolores and Church Streets. "We cannot say thanks enough as many times (because) it's clearly somebody thinking outside of themselves and thinking for the community."

Maria and her sister Sofia will start school there in the fall.


"I have no words for how thankful we are," Maria said.

Hernandez admitted that it's been a devastating time for her family and there is still uncertainty in their future. She was not working because of an injury and says she will now have to find a way to provide for her children.

His daughter Maria said she believes something good has happened to her father -- even in death.

"I'm happy because he gets to be buried with heroes from the Army," she said. "And I think the anonymous person will still be buried there with my dad and it'll be the two of them and I'm happy because he gets to be with the person who donated from his heart."

By KTVU reporter Tara Moriarty.