Tribute to a lost buddy

Kevin Wood of Rock Hill was a boyhood friend of Charleston firefighter William "Billy" Hutchinson, who lost his life in Monday's furniture story fire. Wood took the trophy, foreground, that they won playing basketball in 1973 to give Hutchinson's mother.
Kevin Wood of Rock Hill was a boyhood friend of Charleston firefighter William "Billy" Hutchinson, who lost his life in Monday's furniture story fire. Wood took the trophy, foreground, that they won playing basketball in 1973 to give Hutchinson's mother.

A Comporium cable was out Monday night, so Kevin Wood, 47, worked in the darkness until 4:30 a.m. Tuesday. That's what a man with a brush cut and granite jaw who splices cable for a living does if he grew up in the tough, blue-collar, wooden-steepled Baptist church "West of Ashley" Charleston neighborhood and used to be Charleston firefighter.

Wood was back at work at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and a coworker said that firemen from Charleston were dead in a fire. Wood's stomach wrenched and he checked the Internet and called his best friend since age 6, Randy Hutchinson. Randy, like Kevin Wood, is also a former Charleston firefighter, one year younger than brother Billy Hutchinson.

Wood and the two Hutchinson brothers were the tightest trio anybody ever saw.

"You saw one of us, you saw the three of us," Wood said.

Billy was the one who was still a firefighter after 30 years in the department.

Randy's wife answered the phone and told Wood, who was in her wedding: "One of them was Billy."

Wood called his wife, Mary, a school counselor. She, of course, told him to come home and deal with his grief.

Wood didn't. He spliced cable all day Tuesday. Because guys like him don't go home from work even when another fireman you've known all your life is dead in a fire.

So Tuesday night through Friday morning, when he wasn't at work, Wood followed the developing story, remembering Billy Hutchinson.

All the three boys ever wanted to be was firemen. Hutchinson's mother was Charleston's first-ever female fire inspector. The three boys grew up watching firefighters.

Most firefighters work 24 hours on, 48 hours off, so the boys saw tough guys who got dirty at work saving people and buildings. Then, on their off-shifts, because the pay was so low, they saw the same guys do men's work, like plumbing, pouring concrete and building decks.

The Hutchinson boys and Wood walked to and from school together every day for years. They pooled their change to buy chocolate-covered peanuts at the W.T. Grant store.

"We had this basketball team at Pinecrest Baptist Church, where we all went; we won two games the first year," Wood said. "Then we were champions the next and four more times after that. Billy was the point guard. The spark plug. Growing up, I always looked up to him. He never quit at anything."

The boys turned teens who played sports and swam and learned to water ski. They wooed girls and learned to drive fast.

Together, with Billy older and leading.

Billy joined the fire department in 1977. He went to barber school to make extra money off-shift.

Randy Hutchinson and Wood joined in 1980, a week apart. Wood was a firefighter at 20, rushing into burning buildings. For $9,100 a year. That's $175 a week.

In those days, Wood worked at Charleston's station 9. At Station 8 was a guy named Mike Benke. The two stations' trucks would roll to calls together. Benke and Wood would rush into the same burning buildings.

"Super guy," Wood said. "Lotta guts."

Benke is another one of the firefighters who died trying to save people.

Wood also knows that James "Earl" Drayton is dead. Another man he served with and knew, who never wanted to be anything but a firefighter.

Wood only left the Charleston's fire service because of love. He met Mary, his wife, in Charleston. She was from Rock Hill and came back here in 1985 to get her master's degree.

"Kevin loved being a firefighter," Mary said.

The Woods have two boys: George is 18, Robert 13. When Wood's father died a couple years ago, George was standing there in the church and a guy walked up and shook his hand. "Known your dad all his life. Knew your grandfather. Know your grandmother. Great people. The best. Sorry for your loss."

The guy was Billy Hutchinson.

Looking at the Internet and news videos of the fire since Tuesday, Wood said it looks just like a hundred other fires he and his fellow firefighters rushed into and put out. The news has evolved so that it appears that the firefighters who died went in because it was believed that there was an employee inside who needed saving, and others firefighters might have needed saving.

Wood isn't shocked that the firefighters rushed in. Firefighters sleep in the same room with crewmates, know their kids and their spouses, work side jobs together and trust each other completely.

"These guys do this every single day, every shift, for somebody," Wood said. "I would only be surprised if they didn't rush in."

So Friday, Kevin Wood and his son George put on suits and ties and drove to Charleston. They took with them a pound cake made by Mary's mother.

They went to Billy Hutchinson's funeral. Wood gave Hutchinson's mother a trophy from that first championship in the church basketball league. It was from 1973, when Billy was the point guard.

"She deserves it because Billy deserved it," Wood said.

Then Kevin Wood drove to the fire scene. Decades ago, the building was a Piggly Wiggly, where the Hutchinson boys and Wood ate in a little deli, part of their "West of Ashley" stomping grounds.

There, Wood showed his son where the man Wood wanted to be like -- and was, and is like -- died trying to save people in a fire.