University City Fire Department chief steps into history

UNIVERSITY CITY, MO (KPLR) – Adam Long’s life is a list of numbers, two tornadoes, 36 years as a firefighter and one award-winning photo taken by Ron Olshwanger. It all added up to being the very first African-American chief in the University City Fire Department.

Just after dawn on April 3, 2014, Long looked over the huge tree lying across McKnight Road at Spoon Drive. The smell of noxious fumes was finally gone after an uprooted tree broke a natural-gas line. Trees and limbs had to be cleared from Spoon Drive to make way for repairs to a water main. A first-responder’s life is often a time of witnessing wreckage.

“It looks like the tornado may have just popped down here and jumped back up and is gone.”

That wreckage can give way to a cycle that includes periods of recovery.

“No one was really injured.”

He led firefighters scrambling to reassemble a University City neighborhood after a tornado strike that day. A month later, Long looked at over a dozen roofs covered with tarps. He stepped over a fallen streetlight. But, he could cross the street at Spoon Drive and McKnight Road.

“It’s a vast improvement from that day.”

Long said the storm moved so quickly that morning, he never expected to face a disaster response effort.

“But, I was the airport fire chief when the tornado hit on Good Friday there,” he laughed nervously.

He remembered the tornado that hit Lambert International Airport on April 22, 2011. No one was killed, but several people were injured by flying glass and debris.

“Tornadoes seem to be following me.”

He seemed less impressed about what happened one year and six days before the University City twister. On March 28, 2013, his wife pinned a new badge on his lapel. He became the first African-American fire chief in University City’s century-long history.

“I just never really gave it a lot of thought, because it’s something I’ve been doing for 36 years.”

He spent the first 35 years with St. Louis City, which also covers the airport. But, December 30, 1988 stands out in his mind. That was the day he ran into a burning home on Boyle Avenue and Sarpy Avenue.

“I prayed, ‘God. If there is anyone to be found in here, let me find them,’” he remembered. “Then, things got really quiet.  All I could hear was running water, like I was next to a brook. I looked over the bed, just as some of the smoke started to lift, and I see what appears to be a doll.’”

After he scooped up the child, unresponsive and her curly locks covered in soot, he ran out the door. Freelance photographer Ron Olschwanger snapped a Pulitzer-winning photo of Long breathing into the little girl. The firefighter ran a block to an ambulance.

“Her name was Patricia Pettis, and it was her 2nd birthday that day.”

He said something in his mind told him to go to see Patricia at the hospital.

“Gave her a little kiss on the cheek and I walked out.”

The photo was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the very next day. And, Long started getting letters of admiration from around the world, even Communist China. But, all the admiration could not save little Patricia. She died six days after the fire. This time, Long faced the wreckage on the inside.

“I really second-guessed myself. I was asking myself, ‘Did I really do enough?

Could I have done more?’ I had friends and family tell me, ‘You did all that you could. You did the best that you could.”

That triggered the internal recovery, as well. Now, Long helps make sure others can handle that vicious cycle, even if for the first time.

“Diversify as often as we can, and not let a person’s skin color or religious preference or sexual orientation limit you or keep you from hiring somebody.”

He had a much simpler explanation for his place in history.

“I was just blessed to be in the right place at the right time.”

Olschwanger now sits on the Creve Coeur Fire Protection District Board of Directors. He was unable to join us for this interview. But in 2008, he told our partners at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that little Patricia did not die in vain since people saw her final picture and then purchased new smoke detectors.

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Email me:  kim.hudson@tvstl.com

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