19 firefighter deaths hit home with York County firemen

Herald columnistJuly 1, 2013 

— Donna Cheek of Sharon in western York County is a mother of four, a wife of a firefighter and sister-in-law of two more firefighters and, yes, one more thing.

“I’m a firefighter,” Cheek said. “I volunteer. We all do.”

So the news of 19 firefighters dead in a wildfire near Prescott, Ariz., was not just some blurb of bad news in the Cheek homes. The whole family helps their community and others nearby. Any fire anywhere near Sharon means the whole clan just drops everything and goes.

“This in Arizona hurts every firefighter and firefighter family,” Cheek said.

Carl Hovis called the loss of 19 firefighters “tough stuff.”

Carl Hovis has been a Rock Hill fireman for almost four decades, and at the Lesslie Volunteer Fire Department just as long. He has probably fought more fire, been in more danger, saved more lives, than anybody in York County.

He asks for nothing in return except the chance to do it again.

Wednesday will mark four years since the arson fire that burned the Bleachery in Rock Hill. It was so huge that smoke could be seen from Chester to Charlotte. Hovis and dozens of others from the Rock Hill Fire Department fought that fire from inside and outside that huge building.

The hurt was at every fire station Monday, because these firefighters in York County are the same as the 19 dead. They do not ask. They do not yield. They just go in axe and hose first.

Most of the county stations were empty during the day Monday, because almost all are operated by volunteers who work regular jobs. They leave work to fight daytime fires, leave home for night fires. They handle wrecks and storms and tornados.

At the York County fire training grounds, where the 9/11 monument honoring 343 firefighters killed in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, sits, all were somber.

Longtime Rock Hill firefighter Billy Weatherford, the county director of fire safety, used the word “horrible” to describe the 19 deaths.

At Rock Hill’s stations, there was no chuckling or cutting up. Just the numbing news of dead firefighters, and waiting for the next call to rush toward.

Nobody in the fire service of more than 700 volunteers at 29 stations in York County, or almost 130 Rock Hill fire service people at six stations, laughs on a day when there are 19 dead firefighters.

“We all have had that same training – it is like being in a shake and bake bag,” said Larry McConnell, chief of the Lesslie volunteers. “This hurts all of us.”

But the firefighters in York County do not hang up their gear when they see deaths of their peers. They go to their stations, put on coats and helmets and boots, and run out into the heat of summer hoping to help someone.

Late Monday, somebody went out to the 9/11 memorial at the training grounds and placed a tiny American flag on the steel beam from the fallen World Trade Center that sits atop black stones.

“We do this because people in all our communities need us,” said Michael “Caveman” Bradham, a Sharon volunteer. “The firefighters in Prescott, that is a huge loss.

“But we honor them by not giving up and trying to help somebody, just like they were trying to do.”

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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