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Wednesday's tornado cavalry - volunteer firefighters

On his way home from work as a deer-meat processor Wednesday - he cuts deer into steaks and chops and sausage - 18-year-old Justin Curtice saw the tornado south of Rock Hill.

"Right in my face," said Curtice.

Curtice did not drive the other way. Curtice drove, fast, toward the tornado, to the Bethesda Volunteer Fire Department Station, where he threw on his turnout gear and found several other guys doing the same thing.

He grabbed a chain saw, the other guys grabbed more equipment, and all rushed in fire trucks the few miles east to the scene. By that time, emergency officials were saying over the fire department radio, after so many 911 calls, that what they were going to find would be horror.

There are no paid firefighters in most of rural York County. The tornados hit in rural York County. Volunteers from Bethesda, Oakdale, and Lesslie departments by this time, dozens strong, were converging on the scene. Every one of them gets paid the same - zero.

Every one of them has a full-time job, somewhere, making a living. There are a few people who wear shirts with collars on them, but very few. Most work with their hands and backs.

Curtis's fire truck was the first one there. Despite the darkness he saw "annihilation."

"Me and Brown, another volunteer from Oakdale, we run straight to Jabo's house," said Curtice, referring to the home of Albert "Jabo" Ferrell.

The house, at the corner of S.C. 324 and Skyline Road, was demolished. At that point only a neighbor from across the road, Ty McCollum, had responded to the old farmhouse with two 80-year-olds, Albert and Judy Ferrell, inside, buried under debris.

The Brown Curtice mentioned is Brown Simpson, an Oakdale volunteer for decades. Brown put thoughts of his family aside to climb into danger alongside young Justin Curtice to save strangers.

"I had to kick in what was left of a window and slither in there and find them," Curtice said. "I crawled into the rubble on my belly. Didn't think about anything other than there was people in there and I had to help get them out."

This was all in the pitch-black dark, except for the firefighters' flashlights.

With the Ferrells safe, Curtice and others ran across the road to help at the home of Jerry and Janet Neely.

Like the Ferrell home, the Neely house was knocked flat into piles of rubble. Neely's extended family across the street had heard the cries for help, so the Bethesda and Oakdale volunteers dove in.

Dan McQueen and his son, Jacob McQueen, Bethesda volunteers, were already deep into the rubble with a chainsaw. Curtice and Capt. Tim Mills, another Bethesda volunteer, and several others pushed into the ruin, forming a line as Janet Neely was found underneath a bathtub.

The volunteers, who pay out of their own pockets for their training and have to recertify each year with hundreds of hours of time that they do not get paid for, gently picked Janet Neely up, put a neck brace on her and put her on a backboard. That's a flat, hard board to keep a back from being injured.

"We made a line, a human chain, there in what was left of the house," said Mills, who had already helped clear the road outside the house so that the volunteers could get to the victims. Others joined in - a chain of hope.

"We just passed her out, hand to hand," said Mills, who makes his daily living as a school bus mechanic in Chester. "We used our training. We just knew we had to save that lady."

At the nexus of the storm, where Williamson Road and Skyline Road meet at S.C. 324, was the worst damage yet. The mobile home of Charles and Barbara Hafner was gone.

"It was pitch black dark, but we saw that the trailer was blown away across the field," said Curtice.

Larry Williams, the Bethesda chief, was working with Bill Dunlap, the Oakdale chief, as incident commanders to direct search teams.

"We knew we had to keep trying to find people," Williams said.

The teams pushed forth into the blackness, the trees knocked down and the glass on the ground and the sharp wood and the nails and spiky steel pieces waiting to cut off a misplaced foot.

A few minutes later, Curtice was with the group of men who found Charles Hafner, then Barbara Hafner. Both were dead.

"There was nothing I could do for them, but it was important that we found them," said Curtice.

Firefighters that night held onto each other. They drank water to try and not "fall out" from dehydration.

When they could take a break, the smokers lit up Salems and Newports and Marlboros. More than a few walked away in solitude where nobody could see that they were human, and they cried because death could not be stopped - even by them.

They kept it together because more work had to be done. There were more searches on foot and by truck. Not until around midnight, after all the homes in the area were checked, did Curtice and Mills, and so many volunteers and county workers - dozens of them - go home. Some police officers stayed all night as security.

Most volunteers returned at dawn Thursday to search for other victims, and to help with damage assessment. Many of them "laid out" of work to do it.

It cost them a day's pay to help others after a tornado.

In the aftermath of the tornados that killed the three people and injured more than a dozen, that destroyed eight houses and damaged another dozen-plus, so many government agencies worked through the days and nights. Deputies from the York County Sheriff's Office, dozens of them, worked through the storm and the aftermath and were crucial to safety and searching.

Also helping, according to the York County Emergency Management Office that coordinated everything, were York County Public Safety Communications, Piedmont Medical Center EMS, York County Sheriff's Office, SLED, S.C. Highway Patrol, Winthrop Police, Rock Hill Police, Rock Hill Rescue Squad, York County Department of Fire Safety, Rock Hill Hometown Security, York County Tax Assessor, York County Building and Codes Department, S.C. Transport Police, S.C. Emergency Management Division, The American Red Cross, and York County Public Works. All had important roles.

Most of those groups, except the rescue squad and the Red Cross, are paid to do what they do. The firefighters, those first responders in rural areas, do it for free.

"I wouldn't take anything for being able to help my neighbors," said Mills, a bus mechanic.

All these guys did what they did during and after the storm for the sole reason that people, strangers, needed them.

Athletes get paid millions to throw and catch and run and hit, and fools call their deeds "heroic."

The real heroes have calluses on their hands, dirt under their fingernails, and on Saturday, the day off from the regular job where they get paid, three days after the tornado, this is what so many of them did: Collect donations from the community at the fire department, to give to tornado victims.

And wait for a call, for a fire, or a tornado, then drive to get there and save the next person.

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