Twenty years ago today, a lasting bond took root between two men on opposite ends of a camera lens.
Holding the camera was Ron Olshwanger, a fire district director who took pictures of fires in his free time. Holding a soot-covered toddler was St. Louis firefighter Adam Long, who had just rescued the limp little girl from a burning building.
Olshwanger’s camera captured a jarring, moving image of Long trying to breathe life into 2-year-old Patricia Pettus moments after plucking her from her burning home in the Central West End.
The next day, as she clung to life at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, the photo ran on the front page of the Post-Dispatch. Before long, it was published in newspapers worldwide.
The photo chronicled a moment that would change them all.
Six days after the fire, Patricia died. The following spring, Olshwanger was presented the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.
As for Long, the incident branded him a hero — he received a Medal of Honor — though he didn’t feel very heroic. “For about a year, I second-guessed myself: ‘Did you really do all that you could have done?'” Long said.
The day the photo was published, Olshwanger went to meet Long at Engine House No. 17, where the firefighter was stationed. Though Olshwanger had stood just a few feet from the firefighter when he took the photo, Long had no idea it had been taken until he saw it in the newspaper. While Olshwanger had focused on him, Long’s focus was on saving the toddler.
They both went to the hospital to see Patricia. She was unable to take visitors when Olshwanger came by, but when Long did, nurses let him see her. As the little girl lay quietly in her bed, he held her hand.
“She just looked like she was resting,” he recalled, “but she was on life support.”
The two men grieved when she died. They attended her funeral together.
And as difficult as it was to accept her loss, each found meaning in her death.
“The little girl did not die in vain,” said Olshwanger, who said he still receives requests for copies of the photo. “To me, she is a hero because people are going out and buying smoke detectors because of what they see in that photo.”
Long agreed. “God has a funny way of doing things to get people’s attention, and that’s what it was: to get people’s attention, because in the city we were having lots of fire deaths,” he said.
The fire also sparked a friendship that has remained strong for 20 years.
Long and his wife accompanied Olshwanger and his wife to the Pulitzer ceremony in New York. They appeared on the Charlie Rose show and in media interviews together. And both men have received hundreds, if not thousands, of letters about the photo, which is prominently displayed in numerous St. Louis-area firehouses and beyond.
When Olshwanger’s wife, Sally, died of cancer in 1991, both men took it hard, Olshwanger said. “At the funeral, he was right there,” Olshwanger said. “I made a great friend.”
The two men have continued to talk regularly and have lunch about once a month.
Olshwanger, 71, who is still a director for the Creve Coeur Fire Protection District, is quick to boast of Long’s accomplishments, including his promotion to battalion chief at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. “If that picture never would have been taken, Adam would still be where he is today,” Olshwanger said. “He’s a role model for how to be a good firefighter and a good person, someone people can look up to.”
And while Long, 58, says any firefighter would have done what he did to find and retrieve Patricia’s body from the burning, smoke-filled home two decades ago, he is quick to assign deeper meaning to Olshwanger’s role at the fire.
“That was supposed to be,” Long said. “You were put there for a reason.
“And I have a good friend now.”