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Thomas J. Abercrombie, 75; Photographer Relished Risks

April 10, 2006|From the Washington Post

Thomas J. Abercrombie, a National Geographic magazine photographer and writer who negotiated countless near-death ordeals during his 38 years of world travel, died April 3 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore of complications from open-heart surgery. He was 75.

His escapades are legendary among the globe-trotting, adventuring set. Shortly after arriving at the magazine in 1956, he was sent from an assignment in Lebanon to Antarctica. Once there, he won a lottery to be the first journalist to go to the South Pole. Bitter cold grounded the plane and he was stranded in Antarctica for three weeks, prompting a superior to ban further flights "until the weather warms up to minus 50 degrees."

Abercrombie dived with Jacques Cousteau, an experience he said was "like swimming with a fish." While suffering from typhoid in the Himalayas, he amputated the toes of a frostbite victim when gangrene set in. He slipped off his yak in Afghanistan and narrowly escaped plunging into a 1,000-foot chasm. In Venezuela, he was knocked off the top of a high-altitude cable car and bore the scar to the end of his life.

In 1965, while traveling through the desolate southern portion of Saudi Arabia, his sport utility vehicle broke down, forcing him to repair the radiator hose with items from his first-aid kit and patch another leak with a mixture of camel dung and barley paste.

"If you wanted to tell stories, he could tell them into the night. I used to kid that every story he had ended in a near-death experience," said Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and Abercrombie's neighbor for the past decade in Shady Side, Md. "He didn't brag, which was a big part of his charm. He was a man's man and an intellectual to boot."

At a publication once known for outsize budgets, Abercrombie estimated that he bought and sold a dozen Land Rovers in the magazine's name in many remote lands where no car rental agencies operated.

For example, during the civil war in North Yemen, when paper currency was useless, he had to weld a stash of gold to a vehicle. He then listed two AK-47s on his expense report as "auto insurance."

The point of all those travels was to bring back photographs and stories of the world, and Abercrombie was one of the magazine's foreign staff who handled a camera and pen with equal dexterity.

A native of Stillwater, Minn., Abercrombie graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

He worked at the Fargo Forum in North Dakota and the Milwaukee Sentinel before joining National Geographic.

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