Harold Knabe: When a good man goes

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Former Kansas City, Missouri Fire Department spokesman Harold Knabe.

When a good man goes, not everyone knows. So let me tell you about Harold Knabe. He was a good man.

Knabe died last Saturday in a North Kansas City hospital. He was 75-years-old and unknown to the latest generation of Kansas Citians.

For many of us though who worked in Kansas City’s news media, or were members of the audiences we served, Harold Knabe (pronounced Ka-knob-be) was known by just about everyone. He will be remembered for many things.

Knabe loved firefighting. He devoted 32 years of his life to a profession that was more a calling than a career to him. As spokesman for the Kansas City Missouri Fire Department, Knabe was one of the most trusted public servants the city ever knew. Just ask any reporter, videographer, photographer, or assignment editor who worked for KCTV, KMBC, WDAF, KSHB, the city’s radio stations, the Kansas City Star or Kansas City Times in the late 1970’s through the early 1990’s. If Knabe said it, it was accurate.

Harold Knabe worked for the KCMO Fire Department for 32 years before retiring in 1992.

Harold Knabe worked for the KCMO Fire Department for 32 years before retiring in 1992.

Whenever a major fire erupted in Kansas City, Knabe was on the scene, night or day, in searing heat and bone-chilling cold, to brief the news media. He told us what had unfolded, who was involved, how many were injured, who had died, survived and been saved.

Harold was known for his honesty, compassion, and a deep sense of humor. He had patience with young reporters, like me, when we were rookies and had much to learn in our early reporting careers.

That’s not to say Knabe wouldn’t let a reporter know if he felt they had been careless or callous, especially when it involved the fire department he served.

Case in point: Two years ago I interviewed Knabe when I was given the opportunity to return to Kansas City and work on a special report for KCTV and the Kansas City Star.

The report was on the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Hyatt Regency Hotel skywalk collapse. It was the worst structural collapse in U.S. history. It claimed the lives of 114 people and badly injuring 200 others who where at a Friday night tea dance when the hotel’s skywalks suddenly fell into the crowded lobby below.

I covered the Hyatt skywalk tragedy for KCTV that warm July night and saw Harold Knabe work non-stop for 10 hours at the scene. He consoled survivors, gave news conferences every half hour, and updated the growing media pack from across the region and country with the latest information as the disaster’s death and injury toll rose higher.

Harold Knabe and wife Kari.

Harold Knabe and wife Kari.

Thirty years later, I asked Harold about that terrible night. Amidst the dying and dead, and heroic rescue efforts by firefighters, medics and other emergency personnel, Knabe confided in me that he only lost his temper once. He said it happened when one of the “national” reporters asked which firefighter was the biggest hero. You’ll have to click here to see Harold Knabe’s description of his response.

After the news special aired on KCTV in 2011, I received an e-mail from Harold’s wife Kari. She wrote:

“It really has meant so much to have you contact him (Harold) & stay in touch.  I have to also thank you for having him meet you at the station (KCTV) – I cannot begin to explain how much his spirits have been lifted by seeing his old friends & meeting new ones!  I know this experience has been tough on you, as well as on Harold, but I appreciate you recognizing his invaluable contribution during this tragedy & including him in this memorial special!”

Harold Knabe established several public fire safety programs in his role as public information officer for the KCMO Fire Department.

Harold Knabe established several public fire safety programs in his role as public information officer for the KCMO Fire Department.

Harold Knabe had an abiding love for his fellow firefighters. It’s the kind of love that comes from working in a profession where you know your colleagues would risk their life to save yours. Firefighting is a profession in which you would risk your life to save a colleague, or the life of someone else. It’s a brother and sisterhood defined by knowing, and being haunted by memories of fellow firefighting colleagues who died protecting the communities where they live and work.

Harold Knabe died on April 20, 2013 eight days after his 75th birthday.

Harold Knabe died on April 20, 2013, eight days after his 75th birthday.

As a reporter I rarely use the terms “hero” or “heroic” to describe the feats of others. Firefighters though do fall into the “hero” category for me.

What else do you call someone willing to rush into a burning building, to risk their life, to save the life of another, usually a complete stranger? I’m sure there were times when Harold Knabe would rather have been the one fighting a fire to save a life rather than telling the news media about it.

I saw the tears well up in Knabe’s eyes in late November of 1988.  Early that cold morning, Knabe was the first to tell the news media six KCMO firefighters, two captains, four firefighters, had been killed fighting an arson fire at a southeast side construction site.

When the firefighters arrived to extinguish the blaze they didn’t know 22,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate used for road demolition was stored in sheds next to the fire scene. The firefighters died instantly when the first of the two sheds exploded. The explosion vaporized two fire department pumper trucks, emitting a shock wave so powerful it shattered thousands of nearby windows and knocked me out of bed at my home five miles away.

Harold knew many of the firefighters who died that chilly, grey autumn morning. Yet he pushed past his emotions, working all day long to update the news media and their audiences with the latest information about one of the worst firefighting tragedies in American history.

These events may explain why Harold Knabe helped establish several fire safety educational programs in Kansas City and had a significant role in establishing the Firefighters Memorial Fountain.

Harold Knabe, a devoted husband, father and grandfather.

Harold Knabe, a devoted husband, father and grandfather.

I remember shaking Harold’s hand as we parted ways following our KCTV interview two years ago. We hadn’t seen each other in 22 years.

I watched Harold walk slowly to his car that hot July afternoon, across the sun baked asphalt. I thought it might be the last time we’d see each other.

When people get older, thoughts like that cross minds more frequently. We have done the personal math and realize more years are behind us now, fewer years are ahead. Harold was 73.  He had been fighting health issues. I was 55.

Another thought crossed my mind that day; How blessed was I and so many others to have known Harold Knabe the firefighter. Mostly though, Harold Knabe was a dear friend.

A good man has gone, but won’t be forgotten.

John Rinkenbaugh also writes about Knabe’s death. 

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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