Matthew Frank spent much of his time racing out as the anonymous SLOStringer to capture breaking news across the Central Coast.
But early Tuesday morning, on the way to one of those local emergencies, he became the story he so often covered when he was killed in a crash on Highway 101.
About 3:50 a.m. in rainy conditions, Frank, 30, was driving north just over the Cuesta Grade on his way to a house fire in Atascadero.
In sight of the off-ramp to Santa Margarita, his 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe went off the road and down a grassy embankment, where it rolled and crashed roof-first into a tree, according to the California Highway Patrol. The Tahoe landed on its wheels and caught fire. First responders pronounced Frank dead at the scene.
The news sent shock waves across Facebook and Twitter, where Frank received an outpouring of grief on his SLOStringer social media pages.
In hundreds of posts, supporters, public safety agencies, community leaders and journalists publicly mourned the death of the man who would run out at any time of the day or night to cover news, whether it be the arrest of a drunken driver in downtown San Luis Obispo or a horse running around on Highway 101.
“You were our very own superhero. You’re already so missed. RIP,” Emilie Foster wrote on Facebook.
“Looking at your page and seeing all of the questions about the earlier crash. Now finding out that you were the one involved in the crash is heartbreaking,” Valerie Kiara Luka Hudnall wrote.
“So many of us didn’t know you by name or have any clue where you came from or what motivated you to do what you so selflessly did. ... But we all know what you became to us. … Thank you for your dedication to your community, SLOStringer,” Corinne Harrison wrote.
Public safety reaction
When Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Steve Lieberman found out that Matthew Frank, whom he had only known as SLOStringer or Matt, had been killed in a car crash, he was stunned.
“Everyone’s shocked,” Lieberman said. “In a lot of ways, it’s like you lost one of your own. I think we lost one of our own.”
Lieberman recalled meeting Frank for the first time at a call for a fire alarm in Grover Beach about two years ago.
“I saw this guy with a safety vest and camera stuff and radio monitors, and I went up and introduced myself,” Lieberman said.
He recalled later meeting Frank for coffee, where Frank ordered a hot chocolate and Lieberman asked the local photographer and news gatherer why he chose to cover breaking news.
“He said, ‘Because it needs to be done.’ That public safety doesn’t get a fair shake by many in the public, and he wanted to set the record straight,” Lieberman said.
Frank was always respectful, never in the way of fire operations and was a talented photographer, he added.
Others in the law enforcement and first responder community remembered Frank as being great to work with and always respectful and pleasant.
“Everybody appreciated working with him,” said CHP Officer Jordan Richards, who also said Frank could always be counted on to show up at any significant incidents. “He was easy to get along with, very nice, very helpful. He provided the community with up-to-date information on what’s going on, road closures, any major instances, and, for that, he’ll be missed.”
Cal Fire released a statement mourning Frank’s death.
“He was quite often the first reporter with breaking news around the county, providing details and pictures,” the statement read. “He was an advocate for public safety with a great deal of respect for the jobs performed by our firefighters and police officers.”
“It’s just heartbreaking for someone so young,” Lieberman said. “The coverage he did and the way he did it, in such a nonpretentious manner, I’ve never met anyone like that.”
Frank caught the first-responder bug early in life, his father, Steven Frank, said.
When Matthew Frank was a child, his father was a traffic engineer for the county, and Matthew learned all he could about Caltrans codes.
“He read the California Vehicle Code cover to cover, and he learned everything he could about traffic engineering,” Steven Frank said.
The father, who has been a member of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Aero Squadron for 44 years, took his young son along to meetings and some of the group’s drills. At the time of his death, Matthew Frank had an application in to join the group. He had even helped introduce the use of a drone to the group.
“He just absorbed everything about traffic engineering and law enforcement, and from that he just learned everything on the internet,” Frank said. “He expanded his knowledge to include everything about the first responders, law enforcement and the medical people, and then he expanded that to include fire.”
Frank’s father described Matthew, a 2005 graduate of San Luis Obispo High School, as “a brilliant boy,” a quick learner who absorbed all the knowledge he could.
He acknowledged on his page no formal training as a reporter. Yet he struck a chord with the public by opening up a dialog with his readers, responding to requests for information and dashing out whenever calls came over the scanner. The unconventional approach earned him more than 54,000 likes on his SLOStringer Facebook page.
“Matthew found a niche, a passion that people had for news, immediate news, about car wrecks, about driving under the influence, about fires, about floods,” his father said. “He did all of this anonymously. He never looked for credit for what he was doing. He was insistent on being correct — he had a passion for being correct with all his information.”
The highlight of Matthew Frank’s life, his father said, was covering the Chimney Fire at Lake Nacimiento last summer.
During the fire, Frank heard from people who had been evacuated and had left their pets, prescription medications or other items behind. Matthew, his father said, would use his credentials to get to those people’s houses and bring them their medication and take care of their pets.
“He was working 18 hours a day between Hearst Castle and what was going on at Nacimiento, but for two weeks he was in his heyday,” Steven Frank said.
Additionally, Matthew Frank was passionate about getting people to not drink and drive, his father said. He said he never saw Matthew with a drink, ever.
“He would be up all night trying to videotape people getting arrested for driving under the influence and trying to get people not to do it,” he said. And his son, who was well known by the county’s public safety community, could be counted on to help them.
“He would go to a wreck, a fatal wreck. He would take a thousand photographs, and he would give the (camera’s memory) chip to the officer, and the officer would have all the information he could imagine,” his father said.
Frank had just turned 30 on March 6, his father said. In addition to being SLOStringer, he also owned SikMoto, a motorcycle shop in San Luis Obispo. On Tuesday, the shop had a sign on the door saying it would be closed for two days.
Frank attended Cuesta College and studied business administration. But his passion was always with law enforcement and first responders.
“He was doing what he loved doing, at 3 in the morning, going to take pictures of a fire in Atascadero,” said his father, who noted the family is planning a memorial service but doesn’t have details yet.
“He was our only child. He was our everything. And we are in shock.”