News photographer battles flames to help crash victim

TAMPA — News videographer John Deal was prepared for a light news day— covering children with perfect conduct at Northwest Elementary School. But something about the crashed red truck off the Veterans Expressway made him stop his 10 Connects live truck about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Along with a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy, Deal walked to the passenger side of the truck, knocked on the tinted window and opened the door.

Inside, Brett Hawkins of Spring Hill was crunched beneath the dashboard, his head near the armrest, thick smoke rushing from the engine. Flames were beginning to grow.

"We've got to do something quick!" Deal, 44, said.

Then he heard a "blood-curdling scream" — the kind reserved for burning flesh. Deal let loose with a fire extinguisher on Hawkins' legs as he began to wiggle his way over the console and out the door. He fell to the ground, Deal said, as flames rose nearly 30 feet. Hawkins' skin hung in folds like a bunched-up sock — but he was alive.

"If being a hero means being scared, I was Superman," Deal said. "I wasn't really scared of the fire or anything. I just didn't want this guy to die."

Hawkins was in critical condition at Tampa General Hospital.

Deal soon became a news subject instead of a news observer, being interviewed by his station's anchors.

Deal rejects any hero title. As a military brat and journalist who has covered hurricanes and the war in Afghanistan, the reality of death is nothing new.

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

News photographer battles flames to help crash victim 06/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 2, 2009 10:17pm]

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