By Kevin Hogencamp, City of Atlantic Beach Deputy City Manager
Greg Franek was distraught, with plenty of justification.
A kidney-transplant-hopeful for more than two years, Franek is undergoing dialysis treatment.
And – as with others – the current economy is taking its toll on him.
Then, overnight, Franek and his neighbors lost their homes in a fire that destroyed a multi-unit apartment complex.
The longtime Atlantic Beach resident was left only with the pair of pants he was wearing when he ran out of his burning apartment and woke his neighbors, likely saving their lives.
Days after the June 7 Beach Avenue fire, in spite of being hailed as a hero by firefighters and his neighbors, Franek was reeling.
“It was one thing after another,” he said.
Then, Franek received a your-glass-is-half-full admonishment from his physician.
“He said, ‘You know what? God didn’t take you in the fire. He didn’t take (neighbor) Henry (Bishop). You’re going to get a kidney. You’re going to have a good life. Look at it that way.”
And the Atlantic Beach community rallied, raising money and Franek’s hopes for the future.
Now, Franek says, gratitude prevails.
Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser is plenty thankful, too: None of the handful of impacted Beach Avenue residents lost their lives in the two-alarm blaze, the most substantial fire in the community in recent memory. However, one resident’s pet cat remains missing after the fire, and Bishop – owner of ABBQ restaurant – has health issues that may have been aggravated by smoke inhalation.
Glasser and Bishop said the catastrophe’s silver linings are palpable: Franek’s quick-thinking and actions, along with the exceptional response by the Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department (JFRD), saved lives and nearby property.
“The only reason I am here today is Greg,” Bishop said.
Indeed, Franek’s heroics earned him a symbolic key to the City from Glasser at an informal ceremony at City Hall honoring Franek and JFRD responders.
“Without regard for your personal safety, you banged on doors, made phone calls, ran between units, and even tossed a brick into a unit, all in an effort to awaken your neighbors and make sure they got out safely,” Glasser told Franek, reading from a letter of appreciation she wrote to him. “Within moments of accomplishing your mission, the building was engulfed in flames. Absent your singular actions, one or more people would have lost their lives, succumbing to smoke inhalation or fire.”
Franek says he simply did what anyone else would have done in the same situation.
“I appreciate your humility, but I respectfully disagree,” Glasser told him. “As individuals, one never knows how he or she will react in a crisis, but we do know how you did react. For your brave actions, we present you with this symbolic key. We consider you to be the ultimate ‘first responder’ and a local hero.”
Glasser said the other heroes that early morning were the firefighting team members who train for such moments; as a token of her appreciation, she treated them to an ABBQ meal following the City Hall ceremony.
“It is experiences like this that remind us we are fortunate to live in a community where we can count on our neighbors, and our first responders in our hours of greatest need … ” she said.
Glasser says it’s critically important for first-responders to know that their dedication, skill and sacrifice aren’t taken for granted.
“This fire pretty much shook our community. Maybe it wasn’t a five-alarm, but it had the potential to cause great damage both to property and lives,” she said. “This really is about working together as a community … it’s so emotional for a lot of people.”
JFRD officials said that windy weather could have wreaked havoc on the firefighting efforts, and that the department already was having a busy night when the Beach Avenue fire occurred. Logistics had to be impeccable given the apartments’ location on a one-way street in a dense multi-family neighborhood with older beachfront, wood dwellings nearby.
JFRD personnel from Engine 55, B Shift, in Atlantic Beach responded and immediately deployed extra resources; the team contained the fire in about two hours.
“We are blessed to have the best people in the world that work for JFRD …” said JFRD Chief Keith Powers. “They are the ones who put their lives on the line every day to keep everybody in the community safe.”
(Photo credit: Unknown contributor to Action News Jax)