The man riding in the back seat of Engine 19 in South Knoxville is not, mind you, the stereotypical firefighter you could conjure up in your wildest dreams. In fact, another veteran of the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) describes him as an onion. “Every time you peel back another layer, you find out more fascinating things about him.”
Today’s Our Town Hero is Jefferson Scot Kindrick. A father, a 57-year-old grandfather, former decorated U.S. Army Ranger thrice deployed overseas, a published author of “The Spirit Horses” found on Amazon, a lover of literature, especially the southwestern genre a la Cormac McCarthy (whom he met in El Paso), a self-described loner and recluse who in one sense of the word loses himself hiking three days a week on the trails of the Great Smokies.
Kindrick is a firefighter, period. He also pitches in to help train KFD firefighters-to-be, just this week wrapping up with a new class of recruits. He feels an obligation to pass along what he’s experienced in 23 years.
He lives alone in Maryville. “Yep, I’m kind of a recluse and a loner, very introspective. My writing I do is a very personal hobby for me and the rewards are very personal too,” he says. “I’ve just finished a book I’ve been working on for 10 years and maybe it will get published. If it doesn’t, that’s OK by me.”
“The Spirit Horses” is summarized by Amazon: “… Written in a fast-paced, syncopated narrative, The Spirit Horses evokes the madness of war, the hellishly intense lifestyle of the modern-day warrior, the hopelessness of failing to reintegrate into society, and the despair and mind-killing anguish of PTSD.” Amazon customers who have read his book give it five stars, the highest rating.
Kindrick has lived all over the world – Würzburg, West Germany; Oberägeri, Switzerland; Reykholt, Iceland; Hemel Hempstead, England; and Ostend, Belgium, and around the U.S., reared in upper East Tennessee. But today, he’s home and home he will stay.
If his name is at all familiar to you, it could be traced to the horrific fire that destroyed the historic McClung Warehouses on Jackson Avenue in the early morning hours of Feb. 7, 2007. It was a whopper of a fire, three alarms, driven by high winds and a structure with wooden beams and floors that burned quickly.
Kindrick and fellow KFD firefighters Jeff and Joe Lee became trapped on the third floor. When he describes it, hell comes to mind.
“There was smoke everywhere down to the floor. I was crawling trying to find the Lee boys. I followed the fire hose to find them but didn’t. It felt like it was 1,200 degrees in there. My plastic face piece melted and burned my head and nose,” he said. “I knew if I didn’t get out, I’d die. I’d never been that hot. I had to get out. I found the hose again and started crawling toward the noise of the pumpers. About then I realized my right elbow was really hurting (it was dislocated).”
He paused. …
“The fire was rumbling and coming for me. I was going to bail and jump and with the size of the building and height of the ceiling, I was about four stories up. I decided to grab the hose and go down it instead of jumping. I came off the hose pretty fast and fell the rest of the way. I did a parachute landing I learned in Ranger school, landed on a sidewalk on my feet and rolled backwards. Then I passed out.”
Interestingly, the firemen he tried to rescue escaped before he did. “I was being obstinate looking for them, but it’s what firemen do,” he explained. “I thought we’d lost them all.”
In addition to the burns, he suffered two broken vertebrae in his back and a broken right ankle, a traumatic brain injury and a detached retina. Nine months of physical therapy followed. When the ambulance took him to the UT Medical Center emergency room, he was reunited with his fellow firefighters.
“The entire experience really affected me physically and spiritually,” he says today.
After a few years, he left the KFD. “I made some bad decisions, decisions not in character. I left and went after the big bucks. I was reeling and kept having nightmares rooted in homesickness and cobwebs. So, I quit my job and came back to Knoxville,” he said. “Best thing ever for me.” That was in 2014 and returning to the KFD required another stint through the training center.
Recently, his son Randall, 29, and his family moved to Knoxville from Fort Bliss in El Paso. He was in the Army for 10 years and like Dad, pulled tours of combat duty. He and wife Kellie have two children: Sophie, 5, and Owen, 1½.
“I am home where I belong at KFD. It’s my family. Nobody loves it more than I do. I’ve never had any desire to do anything else. It motivates me to help those who are helpless, and having someone competent to show up and help them during what is a terrible time in their life. That’s my reward,” he said. “The KFD and East Tennessee are my home forever. This is what I was made for.”
And yes, lots of layers of the onion remain. …
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. He writes this Monday column – Our Town Heroes –for KnoxTNToday.com. Suggest future stories at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 865-659-3562.