Deputy chief a sea of knowledge
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
In every firefighter's career there is a life-threatening emergency that stands above the rest. John Clark has a doozy — an elderly woman trapped 25 floors above downtown Honolulu on the window ledge of her burning apartment. Even on the ground, people could hear her frightened screams.
But the irony of his 33-year career as a firefighter, which ended Friday, is that everyone thinks of Clark as one of the state's most respected ocean safety experts.
Writing in his spare time, the outgoing deputy fire chief has written five guide books on Hawai'i's beaches and may be the only person in the state to have walked on each of them, including some on Ni'ihau and a few he had to get to by paddling a surfboard. He also wrote a book on Hawai'i place names and his next book, a story about coastal ulua fishermen and their dangerous hobby, will be published this year.
From city department heads to neighborhood board members, the 59-year-old Clark has earned a solid reputation as a hard-working employee who's not afraid to volunteer time for community service.
Those that know him call him a gentleman, an eloquent speaker and a title not used lightly in Hawai'i: a bonafide waterman. He's also a swimmer, paddler and lifelong surfer who greets everyone with a nonjudgmental smile and a firm handshake.
Clark coined the Honolulu Fire Department motto — "Pride, Service, Dedication" — and helped create its Critical Incident Stress Debriefing program, which helps firefighters learn to cope with tragedies.
In 1993, he was the Fire Department's employee of the year.
"He is truly an honorable man," said Dr. Libby Char, director of the city's Department of Emergency Services. "He has an incredible wealth of knowledge about everything: about the ocean, about government, about this community, about public safety, about emergency response."
Char said Clark helped forge a "cooperative working environment" between emergency services personnel and the Fire Department, which is vital in the post-9/11 era.
"In the old days, departments were very territorial and you cannot have that nowadays," she said. "He helped us work together."
A kama'aina, Clark grew up in Honolulu and Kailua and attended Punahou and the University of Hawai'i, where he earned a degree in Hawaiian studies and, years later, a master's in public administration.
His career with the city began as a lifeguard at Sandy Beach Park in 1970. The punishing shorebreak generated numerous rescues and was the impetus for his first book, "The Beaches of O'ahu." In describing them, he made it his trademark to discuss the risks associated with each beach.
Mark Cunningham, a recently retired North Shore lifeguard for the city and champion bodysurfer, remembers the first time he met Clark at Sandy's. On rainy days when no one was out, he would see Clark scribbling notes for his first book.
"I think anyone who goes to the beach — surfing, fishing or sunbathing — should have a copy of his book," Cunningham said. "I think all of Hawai'i was lucky to have Johnny being so diligent about his job."
Doug Hooper, a longtime friend and a battalion chief in the Fire Department's safety office, said Clark did much of his job behind the scenes. And he embodied the traditions of a firefighter, Hooper said.
"What is characteristic of firefighters is that they are extremely giving people and that is something you have or you don't have," he said.
Clark joined the Fire Department in 1972.
The switch from lifeguard to firefighter kept him in a service job and gave him more time to write about the dangers he had seen as a lifeguard, he said.
"I wanted to reach people before they got into trouble."
He worked as a firefighter at various stations and at the fire communications center before he became the captain of the Central Fire Station. He would later become battalion chief for communications and after that, the battalion chief in charge of Ala Moana to Makapu'u. In 1998, he was named deputy fire chief.
His first assignment was at the Kahuku station.
It was a different time to be a firefighter, with minimal safety equipment that almost no one used, he said.
"In those days you weren't considered a real firefighter if you used a mask and air tanks," he said. "We fought fires the old-fashioned way. We charged into the building with our hose line. That's where the term 'smoke eaters' comes from."
Clark was wearing an oxygen mask, though, on March 6, 1992, as he led firefighters to Mildred McCarter's 25th-floor apartment in Harbor Square.
"In my career, that's the stand-out fire for me," he said.
Clark's crew from the Kaka'ako station was the first to arrive at the late-morning fire. Hundreds of bystanders watched as the 70-year-old McCarter straddled a window ledge of her bedroom, trying to get away from the flames.
Outside her apartment, the hallway was pitch black, filled with smoke. Inside, it was filled with fire.
First through the door, Clark said he never felt he was in danger.
"You're trusting in two things," he said. "You're trusting in your training and your equipment."
The flames were intense and firefighters thought they might have to rappel from a higher floor. But inside the apartment, the crew somehow kept the flames at bay long enough for two firefighters to dash into McCarter's bedroom, yank her off the window ledge and race to safety.
People in the crowd below applauded the men, both of whom were praised as heroes for their bravery.
But true to form, Clark was the unsung hero.
He was holding the hose.
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.