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TV news photographer helps driver from fiery wreck along Veterans Expressway in Tampa

TAMPA — News videographer John Deal was prepared for a day of light news — 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 Tuesday morning. Along with a Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy, Deal walked to the passenger side of the truck, knocked on the tinted windows 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, remembers saying.

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 rushed nearly 30 feet into the air. 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 taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he was listed in critical condition with serious burns. It's unclear why he veered off the road.

Deal soon became a news subject instead of a news observer, being interviewed by his own station's TV anchors and recording a live TV spot, his knees still shaking.

"He didn't think, he didn't stop, he didn't hesitate," said Melanie Brooks, the reporter and anchor who used a BlackBerry to record Deal at the fire, yelling for him to "get away from there."

"He was in every sense a hero today."

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

"Seeing people die sucks. It just really annoys me," Deal said. "That would have just been a bummer. That would have really ruined my day."

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

TV news photographer helps driver from fiery wreck along Veterans Expressway in Tampa 06/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 2:44pm]
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