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Into the fire

AJC photographer follows father’s footsteps into the flames. Story and photos by John Spink.

When I was a teen, my Dad would often come into my room on Saturday mornings when I was asleep.

“John, you want to come with us? We’re opening up another fire station.”

I’d moan, roll over and go back to sleep.

I don’t remember how many fire stations my father, Frank H. Spink Jr., opened during his tenure as director of the Kansas City, Missouri fire department, but for this teenager, waking up early on a Saturday morning just wasn’t going to happen.

I would later regret that, especially after he left the fire department to become director of emergency preparedness. The missed opportunities I had to open stations and go with him to fires passed me by. Little did I know then, I’d spend the next 40 years making up for those missed opportunities.

During my junior year of high school, I took a photography class that instantly became my passion. It was a passion that drove me straight into the journalism business. I landed a job working weekends and summers photographing Royals and Chiefs games for the Associated Press.

The fire bug bit me in 1977. I was in college and working full time as a copy boy in the Kansas City Star newsroom while still covering games for AP as a stringer.

One rainy night in September, I was answering phones on the city desk. The weather had taken a turn for the worse. More than 12 inches of rain had fallen in 24 hours and Brush Creek had been breached. It was becoming a major story. The city editor asked me if I had my camera gear with me. You know I did. Off I went into the monsoon to cover the devastation.

By the time I had made my long, zigzag journey to the hardest place hit, the flood waters had receded from the upscale shopping district of Country Club Plaza. I was amazed at the magnitude of the damage. Cars were stacked like pancakes on top of each, and some had been shoved inside stores. Just about every storefront that faced the once small, calm creek had been flooded.

I was invited into a store that was being searched by some firefighters.

“Who are you with and what’s your name?” the chief asked me.

“John Spink. The Kansas City Times,” I said.

“Spink? Are you related to Gen. Spink,” he asked?

“Well, yes that’s my …..”

The chief grabbed me by the hair.

“Does he know you have hair like this?” he asked. “Boy, you need a haircut!”

Laughter erupted among the half dozen firefighters observing our conversation.

“C’mon, I’ll show you around,” the chief said.

As I began to photograph the damage an explosion a couple of blocks over sent a fireball up into the air. All of us instinctively ran toward the sound. When I arrived, flames were kicking out of a business and threatening to consume the adjoining businesses. Firefighters were just arriving and pulling hoses across the street, waiting for a hydrant to be charged.

My pictures of the blaze were published the next day in the newspaper and transmitted over the AP wire where they were picked up by papers across the country.

So the first time I photographed a big fire, I was actually sent to cover a flood.

After that, whenever the City Desk couldn’t find a photographer, they began to use me, “the copy boy,” to shoot things.

SPINK’S SHOTS: Check out some of John Spink’s photos from decades covering our city’s first responders

Being on the scene of a fire is a surreal experience, especially at night. I had to learn where to step as I navigated hose layouts that resembled spaghetti stretched across the ground. Nobody was there to teach me how to shoot a fire, but eventually I learned what to look for. I began to see it all. The heroic rescues of those trapped, the suffering of injured victims, and, of course, the dead. What struck me as I followed these firefighters in action was their determination and their skilled knowledge of the dangers and risks of fire that enabled them to get control of it.

The sound of men shouting over the loud engines as they rev up to pump water, the fine mist of water hitting my face and the smell of smoke thick in the air became adrenaline triggers for me.

I was finally hired as a staff photographer in 1979 and married a woman who worked part time on the sports desk in the newsroom.

Carmen had some idea what she was getting into beforehand. Riding in my Toyota Celica was always an audible sensation for any unsuspecting passenger. It was equipped with a blaring two-way radio to the Photo Desk, a police scanner and an AM/FM radio with equalizer, all going at the same time. If that didn’t drive her crazy, my smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and shifting a 5-speed stick shift simultaneously provided a great show. It wasn’t unusual for me to get a call from dispatch about a fire at 3 a.m. that would send me flying out the door. It drove her nuts.

FLASHBACK PHOTOS: Fires, firefighters and fire station in Atlanta, 1896-1987

In the summer of 1980, my Dad suffered a fatal heart attack. I had never experienced a firefighter’s funeral before.

After the service, we departed the church for the long drive to the cemetery for the burial. As we got on the interstate and drove through downtown, I noticed fire engines parked on every overpass. Beside them were firefighters standing at attention, saluting as our procession passed beneath them. Throughout that 45-minute drive there were crews staged at overpasses for the entire route. I was awestruck. What an incredible tribute to Dad.

It was an enlightening window into the brotherhood of firefighters that would stay with me forever. Perhaps that’s one reason I’m so drawn to capturing images of their valor and heroics.

I continued shooting fires when I joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1983. Among the most memorable was the four-alarm fire at the Fox Theatre in 1996 and the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts fire in 1999, which ended with a dramatic helicopter rescue of a crane operator. But some of my favorite shots are of more intimate moments — an Atlanta firefighter giving a cat mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, a DeKalb County firefighter on a gurney fist bumping another firefighter before being loaded into the ambulance.

I guess if I had known my life would take this path when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have slept my Saturday mornings away. I would have gotten up and gone with the fire director to dedicate a fire station or two, or to a three-alarm fire. I may not have accompanied my Dad back then, but he accompanies me now. Like St. Paul’s “cloud of witnesses,” I feel Dad’s presence when I photograph fires. It is a mysterious phenomenon and filled with grace. A grace that seems to point to the example of a selfless character, of courage and heroic virtue. All the stuff it takes to be a firefighter.

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