There were speeches and plaques and applause Wednesday as the Richburg Volunteer Fire Department dedicated its dazzling new building.
Dozens of politicians, scores of cops and what people at events call “dignitaries” were there, along with so many firefighters.
There were little old ladies helping to serve the barbecue and the potato salad and the sweet tea.
The word “community” was thrown around a dozen times, because this was surely “community” in a small place in central Chester County that has only a few stoplights.
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The 13,000-square-foot building on S.C. 901 at S.C. 9 cost $1.5 million. It will be paid for by a special tax district in Richburg that will repay a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan meant for rural economic development and improving quality of life in rural communities. The building has four bays, offices, training rooms and more, built for the future as Richburg and Chester County try to lure large industrial plants and hundreds of jobs to this corridor along I-77 and S.C. 9, said fire and county officials.
This is not just a fire station. It is a sign that says, “We got your back.”
“We planned 10, 12 years ahead, and this building shows industry that we can, and will, protect their investment,” said John Agee, the chief at Richburg since 1999 but a firefighter all his adult life.
So many people thanked the firefighters, all volunteers, who have served in Richburg since the department was formed in 1967. The men and women of the department have responded to hundreds of fires, thousands of crashes in all types of weather, emergencies of any description.
Fire stations in rural places are the center of their communities. Fire stations are where communities gather and talk, and debate, and complain, and hug each other afterward because all the problems are not nearly as big as all the shared feelings of knowing that people care so much.
“Firefighters in rural places are those proud people who do what must be done to protect others,” is how Joe Palmer, executive director of the S.C. Firefighter’s Association, put it Wednesday.
Richburg is a place of such cozy community that the land for the new building was donated. The building was worked out over not much more than a few contracts and lunch and a handshake and the honor of these men who leave home at 3 a.m. to help a stranger who is screaming in terror.
The mayor came to speak but had to run back to his regular job, so a councilman in blue jeans took the mayor’s spot, hitched up his belt with a thumb, and thanked people. The applause was great.
One speaker was the high school principal from the school down the street, Jim Knox of Lewisville High School, and he talked of a sense of community that is “the heart of Chester County.”
People clapped, and they meant it when they clapped. It was their neighbors they were clapping for. It was their own hearts.
Richburg has 20 volunteers, and almost every one of them was there Wednesday. They stood with their hands over hearts while a young girl sang the Star Spangled Banner and people whispered, “I wish I had the guts that they got.”
A few people mentioned that it was the day after Sept. 11, the date 11 years ago when 343 firefighters died in the terrorist attacks in New York.
But after all the speeches, and the thanks – 45 minutes after the program started and when it was almost finished – when John Agee with the battered hands from four decades of fighting fires and saving strangers and neighbors had almost no more to say and the bagpiper was ready to end the whole thing, the fire tones went off. There are no more whistles like the old days at fire stations. The tone means a fire.
The volunteer firefighters waited for no commands. They rushed past politicians and little old ladies and guys wearing blazers into the brand new station for their turnout gear and rushed back to two trucks while the last speech was winding down.
“Car fire!” called out one firefighter.
The trucks were gone within a minute or two, sirens blaring.
The crowd watched, mesmerized, as what they had clapped for – the talk of guts and service and community – actually happened before their eyes. Volunteers, driving off to find whatever chaos was out there.
John Agee, the chief, never skipped a beat.
“That is what we do,” Agee said to anybody who asked him after the trucks left. “The call came in. The crews went. There is nothing complicated about it.”
The trucks came back about 15 minutes later. The car fire was out by the time they reached the vehicle. Nobody was hurt.
But the firemen went.
During those few minutes at the newest of 483 fire stations in South Carolina, people in that brand new building milled about and said, “What would we do without them?”