Grandfather was hero before and during fatal fire

The DeKalb County man spent 23 years in the U.S. Air Force and was awarded a Purple Heart medal from his service in the Korean War, and he was known for opening his door to people down on their luck, relatives said.

When his home on Bressler Circle was engulfed by an early morning fire, Adams, 81, again put others before himself and went about saving family members.

"He said, ‘I’m going to make sure all of the kids are out,'" said Tori Adams, the man's daughter and one of his eight children. "He wouldn't leave."

Fire officials haven't determined the cause of the fire, which began just after 8 a.m. Family members believe the blaze ignited from faulty basement wiring.

The Adams home was filled with family over the weekend because of the festivals, homecomings and celebrations held around metro Atlanta. Tori Adams woke to find smoke inside the house. The fire spread from the bottom floor of the split-level home to the top while Tori and her brother, Antonio Adams, rushed grandchildren outside.

Tori and her mother were helped out the front windows by a good Samaritan who spotted the fire and stopped to help. Upstairs, Johnny Lee Adams helped his grandson climb out a bathroom window and onto a roof below. The man next pushed Antonio into the bathroom and shut the door behind him.

That was the last time anyone saw the war veteran and retired MARTA bus driver alive.

Antonio Adams tried to go back repeatedly and save his father, his brother Rico Adams said.

"My brother did everything he could," Rico Adams said. "He went back three or four times. He got hospitalized with smoke inhalation. He could barely breathe, but he didn't give up, either. I'm proud of my brother. He's definitely a hero to me. My father saved everyone. [Antonio] tried to save my father."

A day after the tragedy, as family members made plans to bury their patriarch, they reflected on his life and the lessons he imparted. Johnny Lee Adams was an only child growing up in Columbus, which might be why he wanted a large family. He and his wife, Anne, married in the late 1950s after meeting in the U.S. Air Force, and raised five biological and three adopted children. Through the years, the family took in other young people who needed a place to stay and treated them like family, relatives said.

A religious man, Johnny Lee Adams taught his children that God came first, and family second, daughter-in-law Pam Adams said.

Johnny Lee Adams had more than two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom called their grandfather "the bionic man." He had hip- and knee-replacement surgeries. That didn't keep him from daily exercise and playing with the younger ones in his neatly-kept backyard.

Adams most enjoyed being at home with his family, especially if he was behind the grill. The family was preparing to have a huge cookout on the day of the fire to celebrate the fall.

Rico Adams said wishes he had asked his humble father more about his life. Yet he knew enough to want to emulate him.

"Everybody is saying he was a hero, but, in my eyes, he was just dad," Rico Adams said. "I don’t know a man I’d rather be."

Staff writer Larry Hartstein and photographer John Spink contributed to this article.

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