Local

'I put out fires. That is what I do.'

FORT MILL -- Tuesday found Ken Kerber, James Broome and Ryan Powell at the Fort Mill fire station. But their hearts were in Charleston, where nine firefighters just like them died when the roof of the burning building collapsed.

The word "roof" echoed at the Fort Mill station like a cannon shot.

The word brought back thoughts of 3:20 a.m. May 5. Fire on Fort Mill's Main Street. Powell leapt from his bed at home that night and got dressed so fast he forgot socks.

"Be careful," called out his wife, Aimee, to Powell's back as he ran. He works for Fort Mill's fire department full time, yet still volunteers there on his time off. He was off that night.

So what. Fire, go.

James Broome that night drove to the Flint Hill volunteer station. He is a paid firefighter at Fort Mill, but was off May 5, too. He has a fiancee and a son. He volunteers for Flint Hill on his days off.

Fire, go.

The words "flames through the roof," crackled over the radio about Tony's Pizza as trucks arrived.

"I took one look and said, 'We got this,'" Broome said of the fire. "I'll go to hell and put it out. I put out fires. That is what I do."

A pair of Fort Mill firefighters who had been at the station were first at the scene. Fort Mill Fire Chief Ken Kerber arrived. He gave up a job as a bank executive, where the only injury he ever got was a paper cut, just to fight fires. He took over command and 20 years of firefighting experience roared through his head: Wind speed and direction, manpower, water resources, exposures of other buildings, safety, more.

"I had an old, sturdy building, flat roof, so I knew it had roof trusses," Kerber said of big wooden beams. "If that was a new construction single family house, with all that fire, the concern for collapse would have been too much. I wouldn't have sent people in. But I knew we had to get in there and fight that fire if we had any chance."

Kerber sent the first two firefighters on the scene into the pizza place. They knocked down the fire in the kitchen. Kerber told Powell and another Fort Mill volunteer to go in. Heat and smoke and thermal imaging equipment showed the ceiling fire was huge.

Broome and the two men with him chopped down a rear door with an ax to get inside. For more than 15 minutes, until the alarms on the air packs that gave them fresh air buzzed near empty, Broome and Powell and others fought the fire in the ceiling above their heads.

"Never thought about the roof," Powell said. "Think about it, worry about it, you can't do your job."

Another crew on the roof chopped a hole and cut a trench.

Kerber pulled everybody out for a few minutes and ordered water on the building from three directions. But he saw that this beast of a fire wasn't out, so he sent men back in.

Powell was at the back of the building, the fire so hot the tar from the roof fell on his helmet and jacket and neck. He didn't leave.

Broome and his two men went in a second time. The ceiling was a few feet from their faces.

Kerber had other experienced firefighters outside helping him with decision-making. He had been putting men into a building that had been on fire for about 45 minutes. He did this repeatedly, in the time it takes most people to decide whether to order fish or chicken.

Kerber ordered all men out.

Tools were dropped. Firefighters inside dashed outside, the ones up top on the roof rushed off.

About two or three minutes later, Kerber said, maybe five tops, the roof collapsed.

Kerber said Tuesday, "we were lucky." His mind was in Charleston, where there wasn't any luck except for the two people in the building who were saved by firefighters.

"I'd go to Charleston right now and help," Broome said.

"Me, too," Powell said.

"And me," Kerber said.

On May 5, Broome, who went into that burning building a volunteer, went straight to his paying job at the Fort Mill fire station. He pulled a 24-hour shift until Sunday morning.

Powell, who gets paid when he is on shift but fought that fire as a volunteer, stayed until the last truck cleared at 8 p.m. He dragged himself home and his wife asked how it went and he said, "All right."

Neither has told the woman at home what each did that night. "Tell them all the details, they will worry too much," Broome said.

Fort Mill has nine paid firefighters, but just two were on duty that night, as is normal. The rest of the department that showed up. Every other firefighter from five other departments were volunteers. They came from two counties, aboard 10 trucks. In all, 69 men and women. In waves, more than 30 of your neighbors willingly went in that burning building. Some went in twice.

Unlike Charleston, they all got out before the roof came down.

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