Postal carrier Kevin Breitenstine had hoped it would turn out differently.
He wanted the 90-year-old Stratford woman he helped save last week from a hole in her backyard to be at a ceremony honoring him yesterday.
But Catherine McCleary died late Sunday of injuries from her Feb. 7 fall, through a collapsed portion of her asphalt patio, into an unused septic tank more than eight feet down.
"It's very sad," Breitenstine said as he delivered the mail after being honored. "It would have been a nice ending if she had been there. Instead, it's been bittersweet for me."
Stratford and Postal Service officials presented Breitenstine, 49, of Runnemede, with plaques recognizing his quick thinking and efforts to save McCleary.
"He did what he could do to preserve life," said Stratford Police Chief Ronald Morello, who responded with the rescuers who extricated McCleary. "He did all the right things."
Breitenstine was delivering mail on the day of the accident when he heard a high-pitched cry so persistent that he decided to investigate.
In a backyard on Temple Avenue, he found McCleary trapped in a hole. She had gone out about 2 p.m. to pick up a railing that had fallen and felt the asphalt patio give way under her, police said.
A capped 31/2-foot-wide pipe leading down to the unused tank had corroded, and the earth around it had eroded, police said. The septic system had not been used since the area was connected to the municipal system in the 1960s, officials said.
Breitenstine "let her know he was there and didn't get too close to the hole," Morello said. More important, he called 911.
Stratford police and fire rescuers arrived minutes later. They were joined by firefighters from Runnemede and Laurel Springs, who were on their way as McCleary's nephew James Pedl, of Pine Hill, arrived, Morello said.
McCleary, a widow who had lived in the neighborhood about 40 years, was treated for internal injuries at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.
"It was a bad fall, and she was 90 years old," Morello said.
While walking his route yesterday, Breitenstine said the whole experience had "put a seed in me."
"I'd like to help someone again," he said. "And I hope if something does happen that the person will stay saved."