When a tornado ripped through York County south of Rock Hill in November 2011, the 20 members of the Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department did not wait for somebody else to rescue people.
These men who all work regular jobs – everything from beer trucks to carpenters, cops to judges – dropped everything and rushed headlong toward the crisis.
“They were great,” said Albert “Jabo” Ferrell, one of the homeowners who had to be pulled from the debris of a destroyed house. “They came and helped and did it because that is what they do – help people.”
This weekend, the volunteers need a bit of rescuing themselves, after last year’s annual barbecue fundraiser was washed out when a refrigerator broke. More than 1,500 pounds of meat, already cooked, had to be tossed out.
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The coolers are fixed and the volunteers, ever at the ready, will be watching the temperature gauges until the meals are served Friday and Saturday.
“We have a backup plan, and a backup plan for that plan,” laughed Bill Dunlap, the Oakdale fire chief for 22 years. “The cooler that broke is fixed, and now we have digital thermometer readouts. One of us will be watching around the clock, even if we have to sleep here.
“We will have barbecue this year. Absolutely. No doubt.”
Last year’s barbecue would have been the 25th in a row that the department uses as its sole fundraiser to make money to serve more than 8,500 residents in the fire district.
This year’s event would have been the 26th, so maybe this makes 2013 the 25th-and-a half annual Oakdale barbecue.
All the proceeds help pay for new equipment for volunteers to use to help those in a jam.
The Oakdale fire district runs south from the city limits of Rock Hill to the Chester County line, an area the department helps protect without a single paid employee.
In 2012, the department responded to 240 calls, after receiving more than 300 calls the year before – including that tornado that killed three people, injured several others and demolished more than 20 buildings.
Many of the Oakdale volunteers took several days off from their regular jobs after the tornado to work rescue and recovery. Those same people took days off from regular jobs last year to prepare for the barbecue, only to lose the meat.
“But in the fire department, you go on, you do whatever needs doing,” Dunlap said. “There have been times over the years when we had structure fires when the barbecue was going on.
“You go to the call and then come back. That is what we do.”
Nobody knows that better than Jabo Ferrell and his son, Dick Ferrell.
In November, the Ferrells put on a barbecue of their own to thank all the people who helped them after the tornado. Front and center to receive thanks that day were the Oakdale volunteers.
“It is amazing and wonderful that in this day and age, when people are so busy, that these people still take time, make time, to help out their fellow man,” Dick Ferrell said.
On Friday and Saturday, the Ferrells will be at the Oakdale station, supporting the department that looks out for them and their neighbors.
“We do it to help people, is all,” said former fire chief David Frye, a volunteer for more than 30 years, starting when he was just 18. Frye, whose regular job is road patrol shift lieutenant for the York County Sheriff’s Office, still spends his off hours, days and nights, as a volunteer at Oakdale.
After last year’s spoiled meat calamity, all was not lost. Hundreds of people donated money anyway. The Oakdale department’s three stations, all manned by volunteers, save homeowners in that district hundreds of dollars each year on insurance premiums because of the coverage the department provides.
But the department needs new radio equipment for volunteers that could save each other and residents in an emergency. This year’s barbecue proceeds will buy some new walkie-talkies.
“The days of radios costing a few hundred bucks is long gone,” Dunlap said. “Just one of them costs more than $3,500.”
The meat will be cooked starting late tonight through Thursday, then chilled in those coolers for reheating and service Friday and Saturday.
Service is just how it works at Oakdale.
On the afternoon of Feb. 16, the volunteers responded to a house fire near the Chester County line, just as the department’s annual banquet was about to start.
The family was pulled to safety, and outside on the fender of one of the Oakdale trucks a fire captain named Bob Phillips sucked in oxygen from a tank. He had just risked his life for strangers.
What Phillips said he did that day was “eat smoke.” His face was streaked with sweat and soot.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Phillips said that day.
He did, too. That same day.
A couple of hours later more than three inches of snow fell in an hour. Roads were a mess. But there was a kitchen fire at a home, and again the volunteers rushed to the scene to put the fire out.
Want to go?
• The annual Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department barbecue fundraiser starts at 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday at the main station, 2633 Saluda Road, Rock Hill.
• Plates are $8; barbecue is $9 per pound. Delivery is available for orders of 10 or more.