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SC honors Lancaster County fire chief who died after 2011 fire

Jimmy Cauthen was long up a few minutes before 7 Tuesday morning.

The fire tones in Lancaster County – apartment fire – went out Tuesday morning around then, just four hours before hundreds of South Carolina’s firefighters were set to honor one of Lancaster’s own.

Chief Dennis Cauthen, 54, 31 years a fireman, died in August after working a three-hour fire outside Lancaster in the Elgin Volunteer Fire Department.

That’s the fire district where, if your name is Cauthen, you fight fire even if it kills you.

Jimmy Cauthen, longtime chief at Elgin, pushing 80, did not go to that fire Tuesday, a mutual aid call in the Gooches district next-door to Elgin.

“But he wanted to go,” said his wife of 56 years, Betty Cauthen. “He looked at me. I looked at him. It was a fire.”

Jimmy Cauthen did not go, but only after he heard on the fire radio that enough firefighters from Gooches and Elgin and the city of Lancaster were at the apartments.

Cauthen thought of his son, Dennis, who died after fighting that fire last year.

“He woulda gone to the call,” said Jimmy Cauthen. “He always went.”

Tuesday’s ceremony at the South Carolina Fire Academy’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial outside Columbia honored Cauthen and Startex Fire Chief Robin West – the only two firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2011.

Cauthen died of heart failure Aug. 16 after running the scene at a house fire on Lancaster’s 15th Street for three hours.

The ceremony started, just a few minutes late, because so many volunteers from Elgin worked Tuesday morning’s apartment fire. It is unknown how fast the men and women got to Columbia after the fire, and the quickest showers in the history of firemen.

But the trip was fast and the trucks pulled up as the bagpiper started to wail.

“Chief Dennis Cauthen woulda gone to the fire call, too,” said a young volunteer named Ryan Barrs, his hair still wet.

“Chief Cauthen was easy to work for,” said an even younger volunteer from Elgin named Nick Stover. “But he expected you to be there and do what you needed to do because somebody needed you.”

The Elgin firefighters sat behind the Cauthen family – Dennis Cauthen’s wife and grandchildren and a daughter named Amanda Cauthen Carnes who was a volunteer firefighter until she started a family with, yes, a firefighter at Elgin named Brad Carnes, who is now assistant chief in the department of about 25 volunteers.

Jimmy Cauthen sat next to Chief Randy White, who took over leadership after Dennis Cauthen died.

“A great man, Dennis Cauthen,” said Randy White, who now wears the white shirt and captain’s bars. “A leader, by example. Tough.”

At 8:45 a.m., Randy White had been covered in soot and grime from the Tuesday morning fire in Lancaster.

Firefighter Ronny Harper, 40 years a volunteer, and his son, Neal, were at the ceremony, too.

Ronny Harper went to the fire call Tuesday morning, then hustled to Columbia.

“Somebody needs you, you go to the call first,” said Ronny Harper. “That was Dennis. That is all of us.”

From Elgin, Bobby Hudson and Larry Hagins and Jeff Oswald were there. All sat in a line of chairs, with Jimmy Cauthen at the end because the fire department is his family, too, with his family in front of them.

Word got around to the hundreds of firefighters assembled from around the state, that Elgin had assisted with a fire before the ceremony.

“Nobody should be surprised they went to a call,” said Jerry Williams, a half-century serving with Lesslie volunteers in York County. “That is what we do.”

Fort Mill Chief Ken Kerber, who gave up a bank executive’s job to be a fire chief after years as a volunteer and is now president of the S.C. Firefighters Association, was part of the ceremony.

His big shoulders brushed through the crowd, and he walked away saying, “An honor to be here today for one of our own.”

The ceremony lasted about 45 minutes, somber, with “Taps” and those bagpipes that make even a cold-hearted soul melt, and honor guards. A bell clanged five times for each fallen man.

Tough old firefighters with toothbrush moustaches wore black patent leather dress shoes and dress blues, and stood at attention.

Crusty old codgers – with gray hair and creased faces and hands with cracked and broken knuckles from smashing in doors and walls to save somebody’s kid somewhere – stared in silence.

Young fire academy recruits, with T-shirts and ropes on their belts, hoping someday to be like these men, stood at attention. Many of the brass, and the firefighters, had taught at the fire academy with Dennis Cauthen, or taken his classes there.

There were volunteers from tiny departments and paid firefighters from cities such as Charleston, where in 2007 nine firefighters died in a sofa store fire – still the nation’s worst firefighter death toll since 343 firefighters responding to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

All stood, shoulder-to-shaking-shoulder, silently, for one of their own who was just like them and died after a fire.

Dozens from Lancaster County’s rural volunteer departments just like Elgin and the paid guys from Lancaster’s city department remembered Cauthen.

Chuck Small – battalion chief from Lancaster, whose name is a kicker because he is the size of a house – put it bluntly as firemen do: “Dennis Cauthen was a tough dedicated man. I am honored to be here today for him.”

The assistant chief from Gooches, a tough guy named Randy Hardin, wore no suit, no tie. Hardin wore fire coveralls, no time to change.

“Nobody got hurt at the fire today,” said Hardin. “Three units were affected. The people got out.”

The people in those apartments, strangers to all, out from a fire in part because of volunteers just like Dennis Cauthen in his 30-plus years of volunteering. Firefighters who drop all and rush to help. People who miss holidays, birthdays, work, to save others.

One of the speakers called out that everybody there was like Cauthen: “Ordinary men who do extraordinary things.”

Dennis Cauthen was one of those men. Teresa Cauthen, Dennis Cauthen’s wife, said after the ceremony that it was beautiful and fitting.

“We are so thankful and honored that this was done for our family,” she said.

Daughter Amanda Carnes agreed.

“We have received so much support,” Carnes said. “Support around the state – the country, even. It has been truly wonderful.”

Betty Cauthen the momma and Jimmy Cauthen the daddy spoke about the ceremony for their son.

“It was who he was, a fireman,” said Betty Cauthen.

And then the Cauthens gathered for a family picture, and Amanda Carnes, one of Dennis Cauthen’s three kids and a former firefighter herself, called out to the Elgin volunteers who were hanging around the sides as firefighters do.

They avoid the cameras. They just go into burning buildings.

“Come over here, we are all family,” she said to the firefighters.

All took a picture underneath the Fire Academy’s statue of a firefighter holding a child.

The real-life model for the statue, Jerry Williams of the Lesslie volunteers, stood right there with them and was proud to be around other great men just like himself – honoring one of their own.

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