A Lifetime Chasing Fires and Disasters Leads to a Pulitzer Prize for a Furniture Salesman

updated 04/17/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/17/1989 01:00AM

Ron Olshwanger has this thing about fires. He loves watching them, and he loves taking pictures of them. But after more than 30 years of snapping photos of flames, he was an amateur until one frigid morning last December. That's when the 52-year-old St. Louis furniture wholesaler followed an emergency-scanner radio call to a blaze in a residential building. He arrived moments before fire fighter Adam Long bolted from a smoking apartment bearing the body of 2-year-old Patricia Pettus. With his Minolta X-700 camera on automatic, Olshwanger clicked the shutter while Long struggled to revive the little girl with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Even for experienced pros, photography involves at least an element of luck; Olshwanger got a career's worth in that single frame. Published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, his snapshot won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for spot-news photography. "Who'd have ever thought I'd win a Pulitzer?" said Olshwanger. "I'd figure I have a better chance of flying to the moon." It was a heady bit of business; until the Post-Dispatch bought the picture for $200, Olshwanger's publication credits had been limited to two appearances in Firehouse Magazine. "I don't take pictures around the house because my wife tells me they don't turn out very well. They're always lopsided or fuzzy. But when I took that one, I knew it was special."

Unfortunately, the achievement was bittersweet; little Patricia Pettus died from complications of smoke inhalation in St. Louis Children's Hospital six days after the fire. "I thought, 'My God, that could be my grandchild,' " says Olshwanger. With the thousands of dollars in reprint fees that the photograph will earn him, plus his $3,000 prize money from the Pulitzer, Olshwanger is setting up a food fund at a local grocery for Patricia's impoverished mother, Mary Ann Bridgett, 22, and her other daughter, Nicole, 4, who was severely burned. (He has already established an account to help pay the family's medical bills.) "I couldn't sleep at night if I took money for that picture," says Olshwanger.

He has also offered free use of the photograph for an advertising campaign stressing the importance of home smoke detectors, which had not been installed in Patricia's home. In the end, Olshwanger says, that legacy will amount to more than the Pulitzer. "The picture should be used to save lives," says Olshwanger, "so the little girl will not have died in vain."

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