On the night of Nov. 16 when a tornado struck south of Rock Hill, nobody talked about money.
There was an emergency and nothing else mattered. The volunteers came from jobs and homes, left plates and forks, streamed in from all directions in dusty pickup trucks, breaking speed limits to get there.
Three people died in the tornado, and volunteers found them.
Others were hurt, trapped under demolished homes, and volunteers found them.
Janet Neely was one of those trapped. She was in her house when it collapsed and was saved by the bathtub atop her.
Volunteers pushed into the ruins of her home and helped Janet Neely out of what used to be her house.
“I tell you, I will never forget them all,” Neely said. “Great.”
Volunteers went from house to house, over miles, in darkness with flashlights, that night. They comforted the wounded.
Volunteers stayed in the rain and the cold through the night.
Volunteers came back the next day and the day after, scores of them, walking dozens of miles to assess the damage. Volunteers walked miles to find household goods blown away.
All was done for free.
None of those people – volunteers respond to thousands of calls each year in York County’s more than 600 square miles – had any input into the York County Council decision Monday to spend $35,000 on a picnic and ball game at Knights Stadium to thank these volunteers and their families. Some on the council balked at spending the money. Others spoke up, stood up for volunteers who risk all each call, and said these volunteers are York County’s greatest bargain in history.
Because the November tornado struck outside the city of Rock Hill, where firefighters are paid, the rescue after the tornado fell to volunteers from fire departments and rescue squads.
“We had some men who took vacation time, or took time off from jobs, even just took unpaid leave to help during the storm and in the days afterward,” said Bill Dunlap, chief of the Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department and the incident commander during that terrible tornado.
The volunteers that night were the most important people in York County. Sweaty, tired, cut, scraped, aching through the night to search for people, hundreds pushed on.
“I don’t hunt, fish, play golf, none of that,” said Dunlap. “I have no hobbies.”
Except helping people – for free.
Volunteers alone do it, outside Rock Hill and a few other places that have a few paid firefighters. For the people such as Janet Neely, those volunteers were then, and are now, far more important than any politician. Nobody called a politician to help pull Janet Neely from the edge of despair the night of the storm. No politician scurried under a ruin of a house to find Albert Ferrell and his wife buried under that house, but alive.
Volunteers found them, rescued them.
About 700 volunteers in York County do this for house fires, wrecks, and huge emergencies such as tornados and storms. They do it on holidays and weekends, in hottest summer and frigid cold.
“I have left my wife and kids at a restaurant many times, rushed out and left them, to go to a call,” said Leon Yard, assistant chief at Oakdale. “Missed birthdays and holidays. But none of us complain. That’s what we want to do.”
Barbara White, married almost 34 years to Lesslie Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Tommy White which means she sure has been married to the fire department for 34 years, too, recalls all those early days when their children were small.
Tommy White was like all volunteers – brash and fearless, rough and unstoppable even if it was tears from a bride and kids.
“That’s really when it hits you, scares you, as a young wife and mother, and you are thinking that you might be raising these kids by yourself because he could get hurt or worse on a call,” Barbara White said. “I always said a prayer when he was on the way out.”
Last year, after May storms, miles of rural roads in western York County were impassable, blocked by downed trees. Hundreds of volunteer firefighters spidered along those roads, cutting with chainsaws, and chopping with axes. Politicians chopped no trees.
There was a caveman, though. Mike Bradham’s nickname is “Caveman.” It is written right across the front of his firefighter helmet. Those storms unleashed damage, and also unleashed Caveman and his fellow volunteers in Sharon and other places.
“We were happy to do it – honored,” said Caveman. “Volunteers want to help. We don’t look for anything.”
Yet sometimes out at the Walmart or the grocery store or gas station, somebody will come up to these guys wearing volunteer firefighter T-shirts. The person will come up and ask, “You a fireman?’
Caveman or Dunlap or Yard or any firefighter anywhere will say, “Yes,” then name the department. Then the person will turn away and try to stop tears from falling. The person will talk about a grandmother saved, or a husband pulled out of a mangled car.
The person, no politician, will often say, “I just wanted to thank you for your help.”
Volunteer firefighters also spend their own money on training, and spend hundreds of hours per year on certifications. If York County had hundreds of paid firefighters, the cost would be millions per year.
Imagine you are Bill Dunlap’s wife and two sons, or Leon Yard’s wife and two kids, or Caveman’s mother when he and his brother and his father all go to an emergency call. The volunteers leave, rear truck lights flashing into the distance, and those roughnecks dive into fire and crushed cars, and tornado and storm wreckage that could leave any of them injured or dead.
Or imagine you are Barbara White and all those hundreds of spouses, and thousands of kids, who watched the firefighter in their home leave Christmas Eve, or a birthday party, or just any night, to help strangers for free so that others might live and open presents and eat birthday cake.
And then ask any politician who didn’t think $35,000 for potato salad and barbecue and baseball, and fellowship for all, is the cheapest thank you to these volunteers who ask for nothing, yet give all.
Andrew Dys email@example.com