Flag pole climber by day, humanitarian by disaster. This is John Hamrick. A recent transplant to Southwest Florida, Hamrick and his Hummer have been helping those in disaster situations for more than ten years. The retired Fort Wayne, Indiana, firefighter fixes high-rise flag poles to support his habit of helping others. His remarkable story has been shared with those around the world and inside many a classroom. He now shares this story with his new “Florida family.”
Hamrick’s days of helping others started as a child. “My dad was all about giving back to the community. As a kid, he concentrated his efforts on giving me every opportunity to do things,” explains Hamrick. “I had six years of tap dance and jazz and a year of ballet. With that, my dad put together a traveling variety show. We would go to nursing homes and VA hospitals and perform because he said that these people were often forgotten about.”
Working for International Harvester for over 30 years, Hamrick’s father had a second job as a real estate agent in order to give back to the community. Along with sponsoring variety shows, his fatheralso supported Little League baseball teams, some that even went on to the World Series. “If he was alive today, he would have the last laugh,” adds Hamrick. “Here I am, a retired, decorated firefighter and my side job for the last 15 years has been climbing flag poles on top of sky scrapers.” This death-defying job is how Hamrick is able to give back.
Through his 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation, Team R&R Disaster Assistance, Hamrick and his fully-prepared Hummer set out to disaster situations from the Mississippi River to the east coast, helping out in any way he can. His Hummer features a basic first aid kit, a Zoll defibrillator, high-angle rescue equipment, a hard bottom boat, an inflatable boat, scuba and dive gear, a STIHL chainsaw, life jackets, throw ropes, gasoline, spare tires, wenches, generators and a Bendix thermal imaging camera. These items keep him prepared for flat tires, car accidents, boating mishaps, floods, tornados and hurricanes. Wherever there is a need, Hamrick and his Hummer will be there.
Such was the case on September 11, 2001. As television images of the World Trade Center attacks flooded the airwaves, Hamrick immediately prepared hisHummer for action. “I loaded fire fighter gear, lights, ropes and things of that nature, not knowing what I was going to get into. Once I got the truck loaded up, I went to see my daughter at her high school. I told her I was going to the World Trade Center if it was all right with her and she said, ‘I knew you would go, dad.’
“I went to the bank and took out as much cash as I could. This is something people always forget about, because when there’s no power, credit cards and ATM machines won’t work.”
Hamrick drove through the night, arriving in downtown New York City in the wee hours of the morning. “It was a ghost town,” he adds. State police directed him to the Liberty Landing Marina in Jersey City, New Jersey, directly across the Hudson River from the downed towers. “I was the first one to show up,” he adds. This would be his home base for the days ahead, along with many others who came to help.
The days that followed led to digging through rubble on rooftops, helping the FBI search for the blackboxes from the airplanes. His experience in high-angle rescue and maintenance came in handy in a city that “looked like a black and white TV show from all the dust and debris.
“The higher we got, the more things we found,” explains Hamrick. As they searched through plane parts and debris, they began to find human remains. “The biggest body part we found was a torso. As one guy tried to bring it down the ladder, because of all my climbing experience, I said, ‘let me get that’ and I carried it down. People were looking for body bags but we needed smaller bags because the torso was the biggest part we found.” Overall, Hamrick and those helping him found five hands with wedding rings. They collected these in hopes of bringing closure to loved ones.
September 11th happened on a Tuesday. Hamrick set out for home on a Sunday. “Everyone knew I was leaving on Sunday morning. There was a girl, her name was Joy, and she was the only one to see me off at five in the morning. With that, she gave me a brown paper bag and a little note.She gave me fresh baked goods and $20. Her last $20 paid my final toll and gas back to Indiana. I have never found her to say thank you and share that story with her.”
The best way to say thank you for Hamrick seems to be continuing to help. Having only formed his R&R Disaster Assistance a year prior to 9/11, Hamrick has since helped during Hurricane Rita in Louisiana, massive flooding in Tennessee and numerous tropical storm and tornado disasters. He also shares his story and his struggles with students.
“What became just as rewarding, going out and helping people, has become going into classrooms and telling kids about making a difference, overcoming fears, setting yourself up to succeed and understanding others.” Hamrick also emphasizes that helping others is as easy as opening a door for someone. “I also speak to them about literacy and my struggles with it.”
Throughout his life, Hamrick has dealt with dyslexia and difficulties in reading and writing. Yet, he never let these challenges stop him. Recently, with the help of friends in Port of the Islands, where he now calls home, he passed his Master Captain’s test. Thiswas a huge accomplishment, as the test made him face his biggest fear. This type of determination is what truly sets Hamrick apart from the rest.
What also sets him apart is his motto for R&R: “Done on a handshake, not an invoice.” Hamrick never wants to be a burden on those he helps. This is why he is still the number one flagpole climber in the country, risking his life to pay for his Hummer’s supplies. Also helping to support his mission are numerous corporations who have sponsored equipment as well as dollar amounts. Those who would like to independently donate to Hamrick’s mission may send payments to R&R Disaster Assistance at P.O. Box 22, Goodland, Florida 34140.
The licensed Master Captain, Certified Scuba Instructor, decorated firefighter, inspirational speaker, high-angle rescue expert, flagpole climber and humanitarian is a true example of what paying it forward is all about. He credits his experiences as a child for all that he has since accomplished. “As a kid, my dad had goals for me and I think, if he was alive today, he would be happy with how I turned out.”