Andrew Dys

Chester crash shows why 9/11 still matters – and always will

Heroism never gets old.

The horror of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 will never cease, and the heroism of those who chose to help and died because of their guts, never ends. There is no race and there is no social status and there is no “them” because in a crisis it is just those who dare.

The scale was so much smaller Sept. 1 in Chester County, but the courage displayed just as intense as rescue workers responded to as bad a crash they had ever seen. A multi-vehicle crash on Interstate 77, fires so bad that smoke could be seen 10 miles away, was described by the incident commander as “a war zone.” Firefighters and emergency paramedics from all over poured to the area – many of them volunteers.

“It was terrible,” said T. Melton, the Richburg Volunteer Fire Department assistant chief, who was incident commander. “I said at the time it looked like a war zone and it did. But then, at the same time, you saw what makes people great. They helped.”

People were stuck in traffic and so many did not pound horns and scream and yell. They rushed to the scene.

Careening up the median with his emergency lights flashing came Tega Cay Division Fire Chief Les Woods, coming back from a Charleston sales meeting. Woods sees the smoke and he says to himself, ‘this is bad!’ Pounding up to the scene, as one of the first people there along with two Richburg volunteers, he pulled out his turnout gear.

“It was horrible. More than 45 years in the fire service, I had never seen anything like it,” Woods said. “Two trailers on fire, the mass casualties...”

Woods rushed up to Dave McCain, a 75-year-old Richburg volunteer battling the truck fires all by himself and says, ‘Let me give you a hand.’

Woods handled the hose and water, then took a turn on the nozzle. The two old men stood against the fire like lions repelling marauding hyenas. They did not stop. They did not falter. They did not sag.

The minutes turned to an hour and a half before he could take a break and Woods finally sat down on a truck bumper and called his wife to say he was fine.

Les Woods is 70 years old.

“I did what every other firefighter would do,” Woods said, shrugging off any praise.

More, Woods said, the cooperation and teamwork and volunteers from the Piedmont EMS crews, to firefighters, to just people willing to do what was needed, was the best he had ever seen in almost a half-century of calls.

“The way people helped was awesome,” Woods said.

Even before Melton, from the Richburg Volunteer Fire Department, arrived in the crash scene, strangers, volunteers, were helping. Jerry Henry, who runs the JROTC program at Lewisville High School, was driving six students, all girls, to a fundraiser at the Carolina Panther preseason football game.

“The crash happened right in front of us,” Henry said. “The fire, all of it.”

The crash was so bad that a toddler, still strapped in its car seat, was thrown from one of the vehicles. “We saw the baby come out,” Henry said.

Henry stopped the vehicle and calmed the students and then did what a veteran of a deadly plane crash in Alaska while on active duty does: Help.

Henry rushed up to that toddler in the seat and made sure he was safe until trained help arrived. He rushed to help the mother of that child. He helped until he could hand off the scene to the firefighters.

“We all did what we could do,” Henry said.

Henry said later the students asked him why he did not act terrified, and panic. His answer was simple: “People needed me.”

Melton, the incident commander, had so much chaos at the Sept. 1 scene in Chester County – people ejected, the injured, the dead, the fires – and still from the traffic came people to help. They were white and black and young and old. Two guys rushed up and Melton tells one to keep an injured person calm and another helps Melton haul equipment needed for extrication off a truck.

“No idea who they are, they just were there.” Melton said. “They helped. Didn’t have to ask twice. Didn’t even ask once.”

A couple of federal agents from the ATF stuck in traffic showed up and helped, Melton said, doing what was needed. During the crash aftermath there were volunteers from every Chester County department and some from York County and more.

Melton worked a terrible scene that showed the greatness of people. And the world noticed. The Richburg Fire Rescue Facebook post thanking so many people for their help Sept. 1 has been viewed almost 100,000 times.

“We got people from the Philippines and England who are thanking us,” Melton said. “But we thank everybody else. Every person who offered to lend a hand, do what they could, when it was so ugly out there.”

That greatness from Sept. 1 shows everybody that the spirit of Sept. 11 always will matter.

Peter Vega, FDNY, died saving people on 9/11. His parents, Ira and Maureen Rosenberg, live in Rock Hill. They are in New York on Sunday for the anniversary. Ira Rosenberg has dedicated the last 15 years of his life to thanking York County firefighters and other emergency responders for the courage to run toward a crisis where death could come, and did for his son.

“I had to be there,” Ira Rosenberg said. “For Petey.”

Alberto Santoro of Tega Cay, the ‘paint man’ at the Fort Mill Lowe’s store, lives heroism. His son, Mario Santoro, a New York paramedic, died saving people in the World Trade Center. He went back in, three times, because heroes go in. Alberto Santoro stands tall in that Lowe’s store every day of his life knowing his son, an immigrant from Argentina, made York County and America proud.

For years in York County it was World War II Navy veteran Leonard Farrington. Farrington enlisted minutes after Pearl Harbor in 1941 and was gone five years. Nobody knew if he was alive or dead.

He came back from the Pacific and roared through life and the day after the towers came down in 2001, he walked his bent 79-year-old frame up on the Sutton Road Bridge over Interstate 77 and waved the American Flag he took from the porch of his Rock Hill house. His arm got tired, he switched arms. He waved and roared and threatened to throw the newspaper reporter, me, off the bridge who dared ruin his show of country done solely for love, not praise. He did it so long he had to crawl into the house that night.

He went back the next day and did it again.

Then he did it every year on 9/11 until he died in 2012, and the state of South Carolina then named that bridge the “Patriot Leonard Farrington Memorial 9/11 Bridge.”

Among many who carry on that tradition on 9/11, his widow, Betty Farrington, 89 years old, will be on that same bridge Sunday morning, waving that same flag.

“I wouldn’t miss it if I had to crawl,” Betty Farrington said.

For a list of Sept. 11 events Sunday go to www.heraldonline.com

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