DURHAM, NC – John David Mercer, a photojournalist for the Press-Register in Mobile, Alabama, has been honored with the National Press Photographers Association's Humanitarian Award, NPPA president Bob Carey announced today.
Mercer was recognized by NPPA for his heroic actions in the early morning hours of December 21 when he spotted a fire erupting atop the Best Western Battleship Inn on the Causeway along Interstate 10. Exiting the highway and doubling back, the photographer quickly realized that no one – not even the night manager – yet knew the fire was in progress.
First Mercer told the front office staff to dial 911, and then he located and pulled the fire alarm before going door to door, alerting sleeping hotel guests on the top floor and telling them to evacuate. Twice he circled the top floor, where the rooms open onto an outdoor corridor, pounding on doors with the butt of a flashlight. By the time police and firefighters arrived, the evacuation was well underway.
Then Mercer returned to his role as a journalist and began photographing the fire, shooting still photographs and video for the newspaper as flames rose more than 40 feet into the night sky.
"Mercer's actions typify the standards that the NPPA Humanitarian Award was created for," Carey said when announcing the honor. "In laying down his cameras to help save lives, he's a great inspiration and role model for visual journalists."
Praised by his own newspaper days later in an editorial, the Press-Register wrote that "These days, the title of 'hero' is tossed about too casually and too often. However, we consider it fitting in this case. John David Mercer is a hero because he got in the game when he didn't have to, and because he placed the welfare of others above his own without being asked. The world could use more people like him."
Fire investigators determined the blaze started in a cluster of ventilation fans in the building's attic, and Fairhope Mayor Tim Kant said that it's likely that Mercer's actions saved the lives of hotel guests in rooms near the fire's origin. Fairhope's City Council this week presented Mercer with a proclamation honoring the photographer for his quick actions.
Mercer was out in the wee hours of the night because he'd driven out into the countryside near Dauphin Island to escape the ambient city lights while trying to photograph that night's total lunar eclipse. After not having much luck photographing the moon due to cloud cover, he was headed home to Fairhope when he spotted the fire around 4 a.m.
Described by his own newspaper as "the gregarious father of four young children," Mercer seemed humble and didn't have much to say to News Photographer magazine about his response to discovering the fire. "I guess it's a good thing I spotted it," he said, "because the moon photos didn't turn out all that well."
NPPA's Humanitarian Award recognizes individuals for playing a key role in saving the lives of others or participating in rescue situations. It was first awarded in 1985, and it is presented when deemed appropriate by NPPA's president. Before Mercer the most recent recipient was photojournalist Kim Komenich of San Francisco State University, formerly of the San Francisco Chronicle, who in 2010 thwarted a bank robbery attempt.