There was a fire at some apartments just outside the Rock Hill city limits almost 10 years ago. Just before midnight. A construction engineer by trade, a volunteer firefighter for the Newport department named Ben Roach, heard the call over his pager that night.
"Structure fire with people trapped," Roach remembers. "I live closer to the fire than the fire trucks. I got there first."
Roach even remembers the route from home: "Off Constitution, down Westerwood, then Longview," he said.
Roach could not wait for help and an air pack. Up the stairs he went. Emergency medical service workers John Hammett and Rusty Myers tried to get up the stairs to help, but it was too hot. The smoke swirled. It was black, hot and dark.
Roach searched until the smoke and fire pushed back. Roach tried again.
A fire truck arrived from Newport's volunteer station. Mike Williams at the wheel, John Harding riding shotgun. Harding was off that night from his job as a Charlotte firefighter. Williams was a forensic policeman. A year before, Harding had searched a burning house and was too late to save the woman inside.
Before he rushed from his home to the station that night of the apartment fire, Harding's wife, Pam, called out, "You better hurry! There's people inside!"
Roach and Harding pulled on air packs and rushed up the stairs.
"I went one way, John went the other way at the top of the stairs," Roach said. "You couldn't see anything."
The words hurtled through the black air: "Got 'em!"
Harding found two people near a back window. He rushed past Roach, galloping down the stairs.
"I was in a hurry," Harding recalls.
Nobody knew those two people were the only ones in the house. Roach kept looking. There was nobody else inside.
Only outside in the night did anybody know that Harding had carried out a woman and her daughter.
I asked Roach, who started as volunteer while at Clemson University so many years ago, where his son will graduate in a couple of months, if he ever thought of his wife and son while going up those stairs three times into fire.
"Never once," he said.
The chief at Newport is Carl Faulk, with more than 30 years volunteering. So many times into buildings himself, so many times sending other fathers and sons into burning buildings to look for people.
"I always worry," Faulk said.
The Charleston fire last year that left nine firefighters dead, "opened a lot of eyes," Faulk said, concerning sending and keeping men inside fires. "There is a little bird in your head singing, 'Do I need to get 'em out?'"
There are almost 600 men and women in volunteer departments in York County, and more than 100 more for paid departments. All are prepared to dive headfirst into peril for a stranger every day of their lives. We appreciate them even more when we see tragedies such as the one in Salisbury, N.C., last week that left two firefighters dead.
"You need to go in, you go," said Roach, now a Newport assistant chief.
Harding is now a captain with the Charlotte Fire Department who makes the decision to send men into burning buildings to save others. The guy who drove the truck that night 10 years ago, Mike Williams, is a Newport assistant chief after 36 years volunteering.
Williams high-fived Harding that night outside 10 years ago, called him "my hero." Harding accepted no credit, only gasped good-natured relief that he survived Williams' fast driving to the fire.
"The time between when you get the call and when you get there, when you know somebody needs you and you aren't there yet, it's the most powerless feeling in the world," Williams said.
Not as powerless as the people on that second floor felt before the rescue. Khadjia Cathcart and her daughter, Jamalica.
"I was so terrified," Khadjia Cathcart recalled. "We were at the window. It was open, and we were ready to jump. The smoke was so thick. I can see my daughter's eyes. She had gone under, her eyes were rolling back in her head."
Jamalica celebrated her birthday three days after that fire.
I asked Khadjia if she ever met the men who fought the fire and brought them to safety. She said no. Yet, she said she has thanked them every day since.
Jamalica is in the ninth grade at Northwestern High School, her mother said. She is an excellent student. A dancer and cheerleader.
"And she plays the violin," said Khadjia Cathcart, whose nickname is "Angel."
When any of us hears a shriek in the night, those sirens that mean fire and give us extra pause a day after two fallen firefighters were buried in Salisbury, about 65 miles away, you might hear another sound.
It echoes and lasts forever. It sounds like a teenager practicing her violin, and encouragement from an "Angel." Music played because so many men who never met either one before that day, or since, brought both out alive.