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Sept. 19, 2001: Firefighters share the dedication, risk of saving lives

They belong to a singular brotherhood, their lives dedicated to saving the lives of others — even if it means risking their own.

Local firefighters and law enforcement officers have been acutely affected by last week's terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. At the World Trade Center, more than 400 firefighters, police officers and emergency workers are missing and presumed dead.

"Law enforcement is a family of people, the same with firefighters." said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant, whose badge is covered in black in memory of those fallen in last week's attacks. "You find you understand each other. You understand the dedication and the love that you have to for the job.

"When a brother law enforcement officer or brother fireman dies in the line of duty, it hits home because we know we would have done the same thing that the firefighters and policemen in New York did."

Local firefighters acknowledge that big city firefighting is different. Local departments usually get calls to car wrecks or one- and two-story house fires. There are few buildings seven stories or higher in York County. But the danger is ever present.

"We don't have 110-story buildings, but it makes you realize when you leave home from your family you might not return," said Rock Hill firefighter Richie Blackwell.

In Rock Hill Station 1, paid firefighters work 24 hours, are off 48 hours, then return for another 24-hour shift. Firefighters work and eat together. Between calls, they rest in the same fire station.

They understand what firefighters in New York are going through.

"When you are together that long, it's like being a family," said Capt. Mark Simmons of the Rock Hill Fire Department.

When the alarm sounds upstairs in their living quarters, firefighters collectively hold their breath, a practiced stillness waiting for the dispatcher's call. On Monday afternoon, after a day of bomb threats and false alarms, the call came for a suspected gas leak on Mount Gallant Road.

The firefighters of Engine Company 1 and Ladder Company 1 stopped momentarily then returned to their conversation as another station was dispatched.

"You have to trust each other," Simmons said. "Everything you do you do as a team."

Added firefighter Jason Dillon, "That's why so many died. They didn't leave others behind."

Even today, during the recovery stage — a week after the terrorist attacks — firefighters' tradition demands that they don't abandon their brothers.

"They won't leave until they're all accounted for," Dillon said.

When the World Trade Center towers collapsed, it killed five times more firefighters than all those who have died fighting fires in South Carolina in the past 130 years.

"Last year was a pretty bad year, with the number of firefighters killed out West," said Lesslie Fire Chief Jerry Williams, who worked on establishing an S.C. memorial to firefighters who died in the line of duty.

Loss of life

Many of the state's 18,000 paid and volunteer firefighters have never responded to a fire where victims have died. However, in his 39 years fighting fires in Rock Hill, Capt. Herschel Carter has seen tragedy. The worst was a fire that claimed three lives.

"You don't get used to something like that. It bothers you, but you try not to think about it," said Carter, 60, who remembers "eating smoke" while entering burning buildings without an airpack. He also remembers being hit a backdraft, the force created by the flames in a burning building.

"There are a lot of close calls," Carter said.

Like most of his colleagues, Carter has never seen a comrade fall on the fire line. There are 71 names on the S.C. Firefighters Memorial at the Fire Academy, which bears the name of Bethel Fire Department member Foster Brandon who died of a heart attack in 1982 while responding to a collapsed barn during a snowstorm.

The name of a Lexington firefighter who died this summer will be added to the memorial. And during their Oct. 27 memorial service South Carolina firefighters will take time to remember their brothers in New York.

"We all understand it could happen to any of us when we go out on an alarm. You are never prepared for it," said Williams, a firefighter since 1955.

"I've had somebody say, 'Why do you do it?' It's one of those things you get used to doing, and you feel a need to keep doing. It gets in your blood."