After work Monday at the Mitchell house in Sharon, the family and the neighbors in this blue-collar circle of construction workers and welders and tow truck drivers and mechanics did what they do.
A bunch of guys in T-shirts, real-work muscles, not gym muscles, sat underneath the half-completed barn/garage/shop on Woodlawn Acres. Biceps and tattoos snaked out of sleeves. Some of the wives were there, too, visiting. A gaggle of everybody’s kids played nearby.
Fire department dispatch radios were at hand, pagers on belts, because every one of them, including some of the women, are volunteer firefighters in western York County’s little Sharon.
Besides family and work, their lives are saving people, and property, from fires.
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Here sat Mike Mitchell and Greg Cheek, best friends since the first-grade, firefighters together since age 15, across-the-street neighbors. Kevin Cheek, another brother, was next-door painting his house after a day turning a wrench.
Still another brother, Shawn Cheek, two doors down the other way, had just pulled in home from work. Katie Mitchell, Mike’s wife, was making supper. The oven was on inside the house, then she went out with everybody else.
The adults were asking about the kids’ grades, whose truck needed work, NASCAR, bills, how awful politicians and rich guys and juvenile delinquents are and how bad these adult guys were when they were juvenile delinquents.
The kids, toddlers to teens, played all around – on a trampoline, in the yard, tossing a football – when Katie looked over and yelled, “There’s smoke coming out of the house! Is my house on fire?”
The adults rushed to count kids while at the same time running to the porch door, by the kitchen, where smoke was coming out and flames were already pushing through.
One child was missing. Mason Mitchell, 6.
Greg Cheek rushed to grab a garden hose that was running from the kitchen sink to fill a swimming pool a few feet away. Greg started spraying down the fire after smashing a window to get the water in.
Kevin Cheek rushed over while Kevin’s wife, Leigh Ann, and Greg’s wife, Amy, helped round up the kids.
Katie Mitchell, whose heart stops every time her husband rushes off to somebody else’s house to fight a fire, called 911, and was so frantic that she hung up twice.
The call was simple. Structure fire. 4193 Woodlawn Acres. Entrapment.
Since all these guys were home, they had no turnout gear, no air packs. Nothing.
“Didn’t make a damn bit of difference,” said Mike Mitchell.
“His boy was in that house, nobody was worried about any air packs,” said Greg Cheek, Iraq War veteran.
The smoke detector was buzzing. The tones for Sharon firefighters had gone out and buzzed on their belts. Two doors down the street, Shawn Cheek, still another brother and firefighter, rushed by in his truck to get to the fire station exactly one mile away.
Shawn’s wife, Donna, is a firefighter. Pregnant, too – the only reason she wasn’t in the middle of the action.
“Somebody had to get the truck because we had to fight the fire,” said Shawn. “It took training, the training we all got, to know I couldn’t stop and had to get the truck.
“Greg and Mike and Kevin was there, so I had to go and come back.”
Mike Mitchell plunged into the house, filled with smoke by this time, through the kitchen door. But because of the hose running out that door, the floor was wet and he slipped in the water, crashing into a closet in a heap.
Kevin Cheek rushed by and searched the first floor, then Mason’s bedroom, while Mike Mitchell hauled himself up out of the mayhem and Greg Cheek plowed inside, too.
The house was filled with smoke, so thick the men could see maybe six or eight inches in front of them.
“I can’t find him!” Kevin Cheek hollered.
Katie Mitchell’s heart just about beat out of her chest outside, so she grabbed a ladder from the shop, only to find it could not reach the upstairs.
Mike Mitchell, big and bruising, a neck like a bull, rushed to the stairs with fire licking his shorts and shirt. Greg Cheek had knocked down the fire some with the garden hose, but water plus flames means smoke.
Then Greg rushed inside, grabbed a blanket on the floor to cover his face, and rushed inside to help search.
“The kitchen was red, flames, fire, the smoke all around me,” Mike recalled. “Just like when we fight fire. Except this was my house. And this was my son.”
Mike got on his stomach and pulled himself up the stairs, under as much smoke as he could, and finally, he heard the words, “Daddy! Daddy!”
“I heard him crying,” Mike said. “I heard his voice, and there is nothing that was gonna stop me from finding my boy.”
Mason had been playing with his Legos in a playroom at the back of the house. When the fire started, the boy had come to the landing overlooking the kitchen and saw, “all this yellow and red and blue – and I was scared.”
Kevin Cheek, who runs a wrecker service and is so stout looks he like he could tow cars on his back, ran around to the front and fought the fire and opened a front door to give the smoke a chance to get out. He then plowed back inside.
Mike Mitchell knocked through an upstairs doorway, splintering a doorjamb with his shoulders, and found his shaking, crying, tiny son. Mitchell grabbed Mason with his right arm, swooped him up, and with a left hand felt around in the smoke.
“My dad just was there,” Mason remembered. “One second he wasn’t and then he’s got me.”
Mike Mitchell found a hand-made bench, made of heavy wood by his wife’s grandfather, an heirloom. With one hand. Mitchell grabbed that bench and heaved it through the window of the playroom.
Smoke rushed out through the broken glass and the windowscreen, but the window frame held.
Mike, Mason held tight in his right arm behind him, broke through the window frame and more with his head, and left arm and shoulders and chest cavity, until there was room to get Mason out the window.
By that time, Greg Cheek had rushed back down the stairs and grabbed an extension ladder – every tough guy in Sharon has an extension ladder. The sirens were wailing and they could hear the coming fire truck driven by Shawn Cheek, with two other guys aboard.
They could not wait. Greg pushed the ladder up to the house, in the back, to a little landing below the second-floor window. From there Mike Mitchell, his shirt torn off, bare-chested, bruised and scuffed, held Mason out the window by Mason’s tiny chest.
“My boy was getting out of that fire if I had to jump out of that window with him in my arms and break my legs,” Mike said.
Greg put the ladder against the house and climbed. He held on with his right hand and stuck out his left hand and said, “Mason, buddy, wrap your arms around my neck and hang on tight. Don’t let go for nothin’!”
Mike Mitchell let go of his son into the arms of his best friend of 25 years who, one-handed, carried Mason down that ladder and placed him into the waiting arms of his mother.
Katie’s mind flashed to her first date with Mike Mitchell, so many years ago. Mike showed up covered in soot, in fire gear, because there was a call as he was getting ready to take Katie out.
Katie knew then, and still does, who her husband is.
“My mother looked at me that night and said this guy is a keeper,” Katie remembered.
Mike Mitchell climbed out on that landing himself Monday evening, sirens still wailing, and made his way down the ladder.
Everybody was safe.
The whole thing took about a minute, maybe two.
“It seemed like four hours,” said Mike.
“Like forever,” said Katie.
“In a fire, the clock stops; everything seems like it takes hours – but really it is seconds,” said Greg Cheek. “You know this from your training and doing it.”
By this time, the fire truck had arrived, followed by more firefighters and an ambulance that is housed at the fire department. Greg Cheek and Kevin Cheek, and Mike Mitchell and little Mason Mitchell were all treated for smoke inhalation.
Mason was taken to the hospital, just to be sure, and didn’t get home until late that night.
“But they were alive, and Mason came home,” Katie said. “Alive.”
The other firefighters worked the house fire inside and out – more than 20 had arrived, about half the department.
From all angles they came, rushing and burly and covered with a day’s work sweat already before the fire. They made sure the fire was out. They wore the safety gear that firefighters normally wear – when the fire is at somebody else’s house.
Included in that team of volunteer firefighters were Elaine Cheek, mother of Greg and Shawn and Kevin; and Paul Cheek, the family patriarch and Sharon’s assistant chief.
A paramedic told the chief of the Sharon volunteers that Mike Mitchell and Greg Cheek and Kevin Cheek had smoke inhalation and were off-duty.
“I turned the command over, and we were done,” said Greg Cheek.
“If we had another call, I woulda gone anyway,” admitted Kevin Cheek.
“Me, too,” said Greg Cheek.
“Me, too,” said Mike Mitchell.
But all were done until Tuesday, when these same people – family as firefighters and neighbors and friends and some even blood family – started to clean up the wreckage, wait for insurance and find out from the York County Fire Marshal’s office inspectors that the fire was caused by an electrical short with the switches in the stove.
“Normally it is me, us, out there at somebody’s house in the fire, then looking at them, trying to comfort them,” Mike Mitchell said. “This time it was my house and my family, and the guys are helping me.”
Tuesday after work, Sharon’s volunteers got a call that a big piece of heavy industrial equipment at a construction site was on fire. Every one of these guys – including Mike Mitchell whose house was damaged 24 hours before – rushed off to the call.
The wives, in the department’s support team, readied to help if needed.
“Family out here, Sharon,” said Greg Cheek.
“You help people,” said Kevin Cheek,”
“Nothing complicated about it,” said Shawn Cheek.
“You go,” said Mike Mitchell.
By the end of the week, a company that specializes in cleaning burned houses had hoses and machines inside and outside the house – trying to get rid of the smoke smell and stink and water damage.
The families gathered, and the clink of cold beer bottles after a hard day’s work by real men and women who volunteer on their off time for others sounded better than any fire bell or siren.
The kids played on the trampoline and in the yard, and got dirty and sweaty and all the parents let them do it until it was hard to tell skin from dirty feet and toes.
“Boys gotta get dirty,” said Mike Mitchell.
Four-year-old Luke, Mason’s little brother, who was outside at the time of Monday’s fire, was dirtiest of all – and proud of it.
Music and a ringing bell from an ice cream truck – a lot less frantic sounding than a firetruck – sounded, and the throng of kids rushed up to the truck. The lady running the truck licked her lips with a sure score.
Every one of those kids from all these families got dollars and they all got ice cream. It didn’t matter who bought, because all the adults paid and they paid for all.
Mason Mitchell, 6, talked about being scared in the fire, and knowing his daddy would find him, as his daddy has found other people in fires.
“I knew my dad was going to come,” Mason said. “And he did.”
Mason, held tight by his mother, his dad’s burly arm around them both, was asked what he wanted to be when he grows up.
“I wanna be like my dad and help people,” Mason said. “I wanna be a fireman.”