Andrew Dys

Local volunteers cry for Texas firefighters who died saving others

He’s 21 and he works at the Newport Walmart when he’s not going to college. Donald “D.J.” Turney stands at the register and asks everybody who comes up, with a huge smile, “Can I help you?”

He sure does help, but in his other job, Turney helps even more.

At the McConnells Volunteer Fire Department in western York County, Turney gets paid nothing. Yet he spends his nights and weekends as a volunteer firefighter. He started when he was still in high school.

Heroes in real life do not wear capes. Heroes wear turnout gear – a heavy fire coat, boots and, most importantly, guts.

Turney and his fellow volunteers, who serve a couple thousand people in and around McConnells, are no different from those volunteer firefighters in the small town of West, Texas.

As many as three firefighters died Wednesday night while trying to evacuate residents near a fertilizer plant fire when the plant blew up. Others were injured. Some are among the missing.

The world rushed from that fire; the volunteer firefighters rushed toward it. The EMTs rushed in, too. Some rushed in and were killed.

Turney said he would do the same thing, even if it meant risking his life.

“If it’s 1 in the morning and somebody has a fire or an emergency, that’s what we do,” Turney said. “I never wanted to do anything else. People need us.”

Turney is taking emergency medical technician courses at York Technical College, with the hope he can work full time as a firefighter.

Turney knows that in the career he wants, chances of getting hurt or killed are real. It happened Wednesday in West, population less than 3,000.

There is not a volunteer firefighter in York, Chester or Lancaster counties who is not hurting after those deaths and injuries in Texas.

“Hickory Grove is no different than West, Texas,” said Kenny Gilfillan, chief of the Hickory Grove volunteers, who has been a firefighter his entire adult life. “There are a lot of tears in fire departments today. We feel for those people.

“We hurt for them, because every one of us would have done the same thing.”

Chiefs such as Gilfillan and Carl Faulk at Newport bear the awesome – and sometimes awful – responsibility of sending firefighters into situations that could lead to injury or death.

“You think about it all the time, every time,” said Gilfillan, who even sends his own son into danger.

The volunteers’ pay is sweat and soot and blood and backs that ache and knees that swell and families who worry and cry into the dark night.

“My father was a volunteer, my husband and son are volunteers, and that’s just who they are,” said Anne Gilfillan, Kenny Gilfillan’s wife.

Yet the chiefs still must send in firefighters. And those volunteers willingly, proudly, without pause, go in headfirst.

“Our job is to get people out of a fire, an emergency, and we do it even if there is danger,” said Faulk, a Newport volunteer for 40 years. Recently, the district has grown so much that he became one of just a few paid employees who work weekday shifts.

Before that, Faulk ran heavy equipment, and countless times, he jumped from a grader seat into a firetruck.

“A disaster, something like Texas, there isn’t choosing to help,” Faulk said. “We all made that choice when we signed on to volunteer.”

That is why Hickory Grove sells hash, and departments in Lesslie, Oakdale and Bethesda sell barbecue, and volunteers in Sharon, Smyrna and Flint Hill hold other fundraisers. These tough guys have to beg and raise money to help others, for no pay.

“It’s awful, all those men gone and their families hurting,” said Johnny Boyd, a second-generation Boyd volunteer firefighter in Lesslie, who has been a volunteer all his adult life.

“But that is what we do. We go. People need us. We go. We don’t ask. We go.”

On Thursday at Lesslie, southeast of Rock Hill, volunteers gave time for radiological training in case there is ever a disaster at the Catawba Nuclear Station on the other side of York County.

There has never been a disaster at the plant, but the county’s almost 700 volunteer firefighters plan, train and prepare so the rest of us can sleep.

In York County, every one of those volunteers – men and women – give away days, weeks, years to risk their lives for free. They spend hours training.

Volunteers respond to fires, emergency calls, wrecks – anything requiring guts in areas that have no or few paid firefighters.

“Our purpose is simple – serve the public that needs it,” said Leon Yard, assistant chief of the Oakdale volunteers.

“The tones go off, we go. People need us.”

In tornadoes, such as the one in 2011 in York County, snowstorms, ice storms and hail storms, it is volunteers who hack through downed trees to pull trapped people to safety.

Rock Hill’s Janet Neely is alive today because volunteers found her beneath a bathtub under a house that had been reduced to rubble by a tornado.

Volunteers leave full-time jobs to pull people from wrecked and burning vehicles. Volunteers miss holidays and birthdays. They miss work to help others.

In Lancaster County in 2011, volunteer firefighter Dennis Cauthen died of a heart attack after working a three-hour fire. He had been a volunteer firefighter for 31 years.

There are a couple hundred volunteers in Chester County, in places such as Richburg – just as rural as West and with its own industrial plants. No fertilizer plants, but firefighters plan for handling any industrial site.

“Rural places – West, Texas, is no different than Richburg, South Carolina – the communities can’t afford paid firefighters, emergency responders,” said Richburg Chief John Agee, a volunteer firefighter for almost 40 years.

“People depend on volunteers to care enough about everybody else to sometimes give their lives trying to save others.”

A few days ago, Richburg volunteers responded to a call that a 2-year-old child had been burned in a bathtub.

The volunteers sped to the scene and raced toward the hospital with the toddler until a helicopter was able to meet them and take the child to a burn center.

The toddler survived and is home now, Agee said.

“This is our community, we live here and raise our families here just like those firemen in Texas lived there,” he said. “We do this to serve people because in places like Richburg and West, it is the volunteers who are the only ones to do it. They tried to serve and protect their neighbors.

“Every one of us hurts for them, because we would do it just the same as they did.”

Then, John Agee had an emergency call in a business where every call is an emergency, and every day could be the day he dies trying to help a neighbor or a stranger.

Every one of those firefighters hopes that day is not today, but each will put his or her life on the line to help somebody else, if that’s what it takes.