When Matthew Frank died in a car accident on his way to a two-alarm fire during the wee hours of March 21, 2017, it seemed as if all of San Luis Obispo County reeled at the news. As more information became known about the anonymous local photojournalist known as SLOStringer, the loss became even more inconceivable. He had just turned 30. How could someone so young, vibrant, and integral to the daily lives of so many people be gone so soon?
SLOStringer was esteemed by citizens and first responders alike for accurate, time-sensitive reporting of traffic accidents, fires and other incidents. Hundreds attended his funeral. To this day, people who have never met Matthew still mention on social media the loss of his presence.
On November 2, a ceremony was held to dedicate a stretch of Highway 101 between Avila Beach Drive and Spyglass Drive as Matthew “SLOStringer” Frank Memorial Highway. The proposal, introduced by 35th District Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, was made official last August. Flanked by fire trucks and rescue units, a large crowd witnessed the ribbon-cutting at Madonna Meadow, approximately ten miles from where Matthew died.
A vibrant young man
Mila Vujovich-LaBarre, one of Matthew’s teachers at San Luis Obispo High School, remembers him well. Matthew also babysat for her daughters, Danica and Jorja.
“He was enthusiastic, smart, compassionate and had a sense of humor,” Mila said. “Matt dutifully transported my precious daughters to and from school and helped with other daily chores of running a household. Matt was a champion in that he was always upbeat around the children and had high standards for their behavior. My children would always share Matt’s ‘Lesson of the Day’ at our dinner table about road safety or life in general. I can see the future SLOStringer’s smiling face and hear his charming voice like it was yesterday. His early passing was so very tragic. He served our community well with such a humble demeanor. My prayers and good thoughts are with his family and close friends. May he rest in peace.”
A continual outpouring
The day after Matthew died, Coast 104.5 FM radio produced a tribute to him in the form of a compilation of music and statements by the community who shared stories of the direct impact that he had on their lives.
One man described his encounter with Matthew after learning that his father committed suicide. When he saw inquiries about police and coroner activity posted on the SLOStringer Facebook page, he contacted Matthew with a request to keep details of his father’s death private as he returned to the Central Coast. Matthew honored his request, replied with condolences, and gave him his phone number. When they met over coffee three days later, Matthew presented him flowers for the man’s mother.
“The respect that he had and the integrity that he had was something that had out-matured his age,” the man said.. “I’ll always remember meeting him… he wasn’t doing anything for pride, for ego boost or for money; he was just doing it because it was the right thing to do. He was doing it out of the kindness of his heart.”
From August 13 to September 6, 2016, Matthew provided round-the-clock coverage of the 46,344-acre Chimney Fire stretching from Lake Nacimiento to Ft. Hunter Liggett in San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties. One woman’s family in Bryson was evacuated for ten days. When she realized that Matthew was reporting near her home, she asked if he could check on the chickens and cats on her property. When Matthew complied and contacted her the following day, she was amazed. Not only did Matthew send photos, he even fed her animals.
Along with the public, firefighters’ family members expressed thanks on Matthew’s Facebook page for his posts, photos and video reports, which often surpassed those of the area’s most sophisticated media outlets, and for providing real-time information about the record-breaking inferno that destroyed 70 homes and structures.
One woman, who preferred not to be named, saw Matthew almost daily when she worked nights as a Chimney Fire command post volunteer with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Unit.
“He had more information than we had, but we gave him burritos,” the volunteer said. “Our job was to keep the generator going and the radios up. National media outlets were at the fairgrounds with Cal Fire. Where was Matthew? At the fire. It became erratic at one point, but he was the direct line to all of us. Matthew was there to help, not hinder, and he did so in more ways than people ever could. From the frontline, his information was invaluable. Matthew respected, honored, and helped us do our job as a third responder. He was truly respected and earned the trust of everybody, including kids. At the memorial last month, this little gal named Mercy carried a flag in her hand. Before he died, she’d told her mom that she was going to marry SLOStringer.
“While Matthew’s mother spoke at the podium, CHP helicopter H70 had to respond to a call,” said the volunteer. “As it flew up, the crowd was awestruck as it hovered there for a moment before it took off. I like to think that was to honor Matthew. He’s such a loss. There’s never going to be another SLOStringer. I’ve never met somebody who had so much compassion for our community. He truly was an amazing angel and we were gifted by him.”