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Heroic York Co. firefighters from tornado host annual BBQ fundraiser

When a tornado ripped through southeastern York County in November, demolishing homes, the people who saw it, or survived it, frantically called 911 for help.

Dispatchers took the calls, and immediately the page went out to the cavalry.

The cavalry, in the Oakdale community south of Rock Hill, is the volunteer fire department, led by a guy who works a regular day job at a beer distributor.

The other cavalry members are a judge, a phone company worker, a 30-year cop, retirees and guys who work in the building trades and warehouses - even a couple of full-time firefighters who work in Rock Hill.

The first wave of men rushed toward chaos.

"We were there at the first call in less than 10 minutes," said the beer distributor, Bill Dunlap, chief of the Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department.

The tornado moved south to north, destroying a bunch of homes. These guys from Oakdale, who get paid absolutely nothing and never have gotten a dime, went from house to house. The ground was wet and the darkness total.

They walked through destruction, armed with flashlights and axes and guts. Other volunteer firefighters from Bethesda and Lesslie and Rock Hill Rescue arrived to help, too.

These men, with Dunlap the incident commander, pulled people from homes that were nothing but rubble. They searched in the dark, they pulled away bricks and tree limbs and broken walls and roofs and found the three people who died in that terrible storm.

"We did what needed to be done - help," said a tough and tender firefighter named Jack Allen.

They found a terrified, injured woman under a bathtub beneath the rubble of what had been her home. The men formed a line, and carried that woman, hand to hand, to safety.

"Super, the best," Janet Neely, the woman under the tub, said about those men who pulled her free.

Across the street, more Oakdale volunteers pulled another couple from a destroyed home. Dunlap, who started with the department when he was still in high school 30 years ago, knows the house - his father grew up there.

"That house was our old homeplace, and it was gone that night," said Dunlap, "but all that mattered was the people in it."

The man in that house Nov. 16, Albert Ferrell, described those Oakdale volunteers who helped him and his wife escape the destruction in two words: "Great men."

The searching and debris clearing went on into the wee hours, then continued the next day and the day after that. The men, and others, walked miles and miles, through woods and fields, searching for people who might have been lost.

Many of those men took vacation time from regular jobs to respond to that tornado and to help clean up those next few days.

"You give to your community," said Brown Simpson, 27 years a firefighter.

But that is what these volunteers do, every day of every week of every year, for the thousands of people who live in the Oakdale district. Last year alone, volunteers responded to more than 300 calls for service.

"I tell people we just did what we had to do," said Dunlap, so humble after 30 years - 21 as the Oakdale chief.

The previous nine years, the chief was David Frye, who when he took over at age 18, was the youngest fire chief in South Carolina. Frye, a patrol shift lieutenant at the York County Sheriff's Office, is still volunteering at Oakdale.

"The people here just plain want to help out their fellow man," said Frye. "Nothing complicated about it."

The Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department's membership wanted no recognition for what it did Nov. 16. But this is a place with just 18 members. The heroes of Oakdale, a department that started in 1956, are fewer than a grade school class.

They stretch to run three stations - and by doing so keep homeowners' fire insurance rates down considerably - for one reason: Everybody else needs them.

The names of the 18 are: Bill Dunlap, chief; Leon Yard, assistant chief; Bob Phillips and Robert Ayers, captains; David Frye, secretary; Johnny Starnes, treasurer; Brown Simpson, assistant treasurer; and firefighters Keith Pruett, Jeff Green, Jack Allen, Bobby Mercer, Roy Polk, Tony Torris, John Anderson, Brian Hiller, Craig Hefley, Mitchell Bechtler and Stefan Walker.

No roster of professional athletes making a million dollars has more stars on it. Yet on this team there is not a single prima donna. All wash trucks and roll hose and save lives.

The owner of that first house destroyed Nov. 16, Ella Bacchus, where the volunteers from Oakdale reached first in their house-to-house efforts that awful night, said Wednesday of the Oakdale volunteers: "They are angels. Real life heroes."

On Friday and Saturday - from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. - these men will be holding Oakdale's 25th annual barbecue fundraiser. Every person in the department took time off from regular jobs, days off, to help. All from the chief on down clean and cook and prep.

The goal is to raise $10,000. Not for trucks or fire hoses, but for a thermal imaging camera that can see through the dark and smoke and find that thermal image.

The image means a fire - or a person in a fire.

"It could save somebody," said Dunlap.

But what really saves people are the 18 Oakdale firefighters.

Real life heroes.

Want to go?

What: Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department 25th annual barbecue fundraiser

Where: Main Station, 2633 Saluda Road, just south of Rock Hill

When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m. until the food runs out Saturday

Cost: Plates are $8; barbecue is $9 a pound; sandwiches are $3. Free delivery for 10 or more orders

Information: Call 803-328-0793