Fred Gall: Professional skateboarder; guardian angel.
Words: Robert Brink
Photo & Video: Dave Smith
ESPN.com June 2012.
“When I was a kid my uncle Johnny was a fireman,” says Habitat pro and X Games Real Street 2012 contender, Fred Gall. “He used to take me to the firehouse and I wanted to be a fireman too. I dunno why. I have an instinct to … well, I guess I just don’t wanna see people die or get hurt.”
It was approximately 3 AM on February 28 when Fred saw a building across the street from his hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia engulfed in flames when he decided to check it out.
“I was out there filming for my Real Street part with Dave Smith and Andrew Patillo,” Gall explains. “I wanted to get some crazy footage that no one else is gonna have—to have my part be different. So we skate down the street and it turns out to be a monastery. And this is a serious fire—a blazing inferno.
“At first, we had our digital cameras, like, ‘Film me doing a no comply in front of this fire.’ Kinda laughing about it. Then I realized that on the second and third floors there were monks trapped on the balcony and no one was doing anything about it—people were just staring.’
“Something about Freddy,” says longtime friend Dave Smith, “is that he’s seriously like an angel cast to Earth to guard the misfortunate. Somehow or another, these people always tend to be within Freddy’s vision. He could be at his worst and then into his best in a matter of seconds. At the Cambodian airport, a lady forgot her passport at the counter and he ran full steam through the airport to return it.”
“So I scaled the side of the building next to the burning one,” explains Gall. “And up top there are these long bamboo sticks that just happened to be the right length, so I made a bridge. The monks were scared to cross because it was so ghetto-rigged. Basically, you took two steps on the bamboo and someone would grab your hand and pull you in. But I got two monks down then went inside and shit is blowing up, it’s hot as hell and monks are just standing in the pitch black. I don’t know if it was for their religion or what. One was just throwing buckets of water on the flames but it wasn’t doing shit.”
“We tried to make it a little more serious to them,” says Smith, “Like, ‘Hey you gotta, get out of here.’ It seemed like they didn’t know what to do or where to go. Maybe they couldn’t see or were in shock but no one seemed scared about what was going on but the potential for disaster was right in their face.”
“I found a bucket and I put it on my head because shit was falling all over the place,” Gall continues, “and I’m screaming, ‘Where’s the women and children?’ But there are no women and children because it’s a monk monastery [laughing]. I was just in hero mode— just trying to save lives, dude. And Dave had made his way up and he’s like, ‘we gotta get outta here!’
“I walked into the stairway and it was engulfed in embers and smoke,” says Smith. “The only way to see was with the flash on my camera. That’s when I noticed all the monks just standing around, not knowing where to go because they couldn’t see anything.”
“I got down before Freddy,” Smith continues, “and I looked up and he’s crossing the bridge he made and helping three or four monks over to the safer building.”
“So after we make it down,” Gall continues, “the fire department shows up, puts out the fire and straight-up leaves. The fire engine number was 666. Not even kidding. Then I just went back to the hotel and had a beer. Like, ‘Wow that was fucking crazy.’”
“He gets pretty emotional after stuff like that,” explains Smith. “We got back to the hotel and he was in tears. He gets emotionally involved because he really cares.”
“Halfway back to the hotel,” says Smith, “Fred realized that he didn’t have his board. We went back to get it and sure enough this monk was standing there with it waiting for Fred. They all thanked him dearly. They were very honored that an American went for it like that.”
Throughout the years, Fred has been notorious for a lifestyle some might consider “sinful” or “wrong” or whatever the word might be. I asked him if he ever considered that his good karma for the times he has saved lives (yes there are many) balances out the bad karma that might send him straight to hell one day.
“I’ve definitely thought like that,” Gall replies, “but I would say I’ve definitely done more good than bad. Some people don’t believe in karma but I believe if you help someone, good things will come to you. And I’m really going for this Real Street thing—I wanna win something. I tried really hard. I busted my ass today getting footage. There are gnarly dudes in this contest but the way we’re going to edit it, I think we have a chance. I hope people are stoked.”