"If Those Walls Could Talk" - Thoughts and Memories of the Fire House and Fire Department

By Randy Mathis - Former Chief of the Pacolet Mills Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad




Introduction

I ran into Tommy Smith (a former Rescue Squad Captain) at the Pacolet Indian Summer Festival last Saturday. It was held this year at the Flat on what was once the area where the upper mill stood. Directly out the Highway stands the old Fire Dept/ Rescue Squad building (empty now) which sits beside the Dummy tracks (now gone), that once led down to the lower mill. Tommy said he had spoke to Doug Jett (Another former Rescue Captain) just a few minutes before who said “If those walls could talk”. After we arrived back home that evening from taking one of the Grandbabies to the festival, I started thinking for a while on that very thing. That building housed Fire Rescue operations along with the small station at Pacolet Station for over 40 years. It's where the Pacolet Mills FD was chartered, It was where the Pacolet Mills Rescue Squad was started.

It is where many lifelong careers were started and the same place many good hearted people found out that it was not the type of business for them. You see, it was all volunteer and ran on donations with a little help from each town every year.



The Fire Dept. wasn’t that busy in those days, although we drilled every Tuesday Night. I believe Rescue Meeting night was on Monday evenings and it was always busy. If not answering sometimes 2 or 3 calls for help each day. (see the squad covered an area that was a part of 3 counties). Between calls, there was training and fundraisers. Between that was time for a lot of single young guys and later on gals to sit around and have a lot of fun. Not fun like people consider today. There were no video games or the internet.

There were 3 channels on the TV that nobody watched but there was a lot of music played while we played cards and joked or did something like plan our next trip to the blood bank to help people in that way. The married guys were trusted to come and hang out too. Not just to show us Jr. members how to play a good practical joke, but it also put them near the ambulances in case a call came in they wouldn’t have to drive from home and cause delays.

It’s the place were 12 of 15 state championships by the heavy rescue team and many runners-up and honorable mention trophies were brought home. It’s where our parents trusted that there was at least some level of moral supervision and it gave us somewhere to go to get out of their hair. Its where ,as teenagers, we were allowed to stay overnight. Before the upstairs was built, we would stay on Friday nights and sleep on top of the hose bed of the Fire Trucks.

An oil furnace hung from the ceiling with ductwork hung over the top of the trucks. (The concern was to keep the trucks warm and ready in the winter) Never mind us, the spirit of friendship and fun kept us warm. But I do remember several winter nights before dozing off in a teenagers mind. Wow, if we have a fire and I’m sleeping on top of the Fire Truck we ain’t got to get up and run nowhere, we can lay here warm under our blankets and some Senior Fireman will come drive us to the Fire. It happened more than once.

Part I - Beginnings

When I joined the volunteer fire department in 1974, at the mill station, we had a 57 Chevrolet and a 41 Ford. Pacolet Station had a 69 Ford and an army tanker (Homemade) ALL involved did the very best they could with what they had which was practically nothing - 10 coats and helmets at the Mill Station on the 57 Chevrolet. If you were one of the first 10 you got a coat and helmet. Number 11, too bad. But we also thought the Pacolet Station guys were rich because they had boots and pants. Not true.

One time, the current Chief Dale Worthy of the consolidated “Pacolet Fire District”, who was Chief at the Mill Station at that time, came back from Government Surplus in Columbia with some gear for us. We were probably 17 or 18 years old. Great! It was used aircraft firefighting gear. Have you ever seen any? Its silver and not just silver it looks like tin foil. Full sets, coats and pants. So, in those days, if people saw an old Fire Truck with silver people on the back, you were not seeing things, it was us. Hey, it was a lot warmer than what we had.

This story is a tribute to Engine 1. It’s significant because the strides that were made by the Fire Dept. to turn directly into the future were made in and around the purchase of this modern Firefighting MACHINE in 1985, along with proper turnout gear and hand sized pagers so that we could answer quickly.



Engine 1

Engine 1 was designed by the Firemen of the Pacolet Fire Dept and built by Pierce Manufacturing in Appleton, Wisconsin. Just a few of the features were the Cat Diesel Engine with an Allison Auto Trans, 1000 gallon water capacity, Pump operators panel on top so he could see the Fire ground. Also, seats with air packs mounted in the seating areas for quick deployment of personnel, once on scene, and a 3500 Winco generator with 2 -1500 watt floodlights. We were definitely coming out of the DARK ages. Also, it had a 1250 gpm pump and 4 pre-connected attack hose lines and a full bed of water supply hose. She’s a FIREFIGHTING MACHINE the likes of which we had never seen. She has possibly seen more firefighting pumping hours than all of our other current units combined just because it was the first of it’s kind to our area.

In conjunction with all of this, the SC Fire Academy had released the 3 level interior structural firefighting certification. Dale Worthy and I were SC Fire Academy Field Instructors and also paid firefighters. (The first of what would be many career paid firefighters to come from the Pacolet area). So you can see the perfect storm of personnel, modern equipment and training that came together and improved the way would deliver service forever.

The following photos show other views of Engine 1 and its equipment.
















Part 2 - "It’s Cold as Hell"

Any firefighter from anywhere that it gets below freezing will completely understand this statement if they fought any fire during the winter months. The thermometer reads 8 degrees this night and if you forget, the dispatcher may announce it over the radio just to remind you that you left a warm bed to come volunteer for this. Its about the year 1987 and we are at the Martex Warehouse again. It’s about 3 in the morning and we’ve been pouring water on this massive cloth warehouse for hours. The sprinklers were operating when we arrived so we tried to make our usual interior fire attack, got soaked and were driven back, so we were called out due to possible building collapse and safety reasons and turned into human popsicles. Fire Gear Coats, Pants, Boots. Helmets, and Gloves contrary to popular belief are neither Fireproof nor Waterproof. They are Fire and Water resistive. Which means “If you stay too close to the fire to long you’re gonna get burned” and if you’re exposed to water long enough you’re gonna get soaked. Ok, enough of Science class.

During this segment of years, Bill Hall, now the Spartanburg County Fire Marshal, was the Croft Fire Chief. He rang us up early and often in those times, partially because we had gotten some decent equipment but mostly for the well trained and aggressive nature of the Pacolet and Pacolet Mills Firefighters.

Fire was the opponent, smoke was an enemy and we with our modern training, with breathing air on our back, and good gear were there to see that it was stopped dead cold in it’s tracks, which usually happened, but not tonight.

At some time they had built or rebuilt this concrete/steel building and at some point a business decided to fill it full of thousands of bundles of recycled cloth waste. This is one fire that is not going out until it’s through, no matter what we do. So, ok, it’s a little on the nippy side, we’re soaked, the buildings burning to the ground and all the water we can pour is being poured, so let’s find some coffee. This is literally gonna be 3 - 7 day event for the host Department.

I’m going from a cold numbed memory, but I think after they got the local Rescue Squad 18 building opened and equipped to handle people, Croft started rotating all Firefighters through to warm them up. Me and Chief Ken Bailey, from the Pacolet Fire Department went to set in this little truck of his to warm up and we could still see operations on our side of the building.

There, I witnessed some unforgettable incidents as the Chief revs on the little motor of the truck to try and stir some heat, it’s not all that important we’re numb to the bone. Just a little defrost so we can see out will be good enough. We’re watching now as this Fireman, from who knows where, is walking across the loading dock area. Now, we knew from hours before, that there were several standard loading docks but the one on the end has a sloping grade making it deep into the ground. It had filled up completely and with 2-3 inches of water covering the rest of the lot to the unknowing eye it all looked level. So here he goes, just strolling along enjoying the weather and sploosh! He goes clear out of sight into the loading dock pit, we’ll call it. He bobbed back up like a cork. Air in his tank, I guess, helped push him to the surface and a couple of guys rushed over to help him up. He was taken somewhere for extensive rehab and some dryer clothes.

Another Fire department, who just refused to go warm up in rehab, staved off the cold for awhile. Then, we saw a lot of activity around their unit and two firemen light in on a pile of wood pallets with fire axes making firewood. They piled it up, put a little fuel from their gas can and Wow- what a fire. I thought they were going to break out into a war dance it felt so good to them. Chief Bailey and I are just laughing at them, but, Hey, it worked. 

One of our fireman told the Chief “It’s cold as hell out here”. Chief said FD "X" has a pretty good fire going with all those chopped up pallets. No reply, we were too tired and too cold to keep talking.We were in fact falling into a hypothermic stupor nearing daybreak when a ground shaking crash took place. A section of the pre cast concrete wall let go. If anyone had been in the area they would have been history. We checked on everyone in our area and moved them back a bit more just for an extra margin of safety. 

Day is breaking now and soon some us will be needing rides back to Pacolet so we can get ready for work. We do work, you know, what we’ve been doing all night was for free. Not that we minded in those days, and still today, Firefighters have a sense of duty. To their community, to the Fire Dept. they serve, but, most of all they don’t want to let down each other when duty calls.

At that time, I had to be on duty at North Spartanburg at 8am and Headman (Randy Bailey)at BASF chemicals in Whitestone where he worked. We came down the road in the Chief’s little truck and didn’t remove a stitch of gear. Normally, you take your helmets, gloves, and probably coat, when you come off the fire ground. We came down the road helmets, gloves and all still on. He let me out at my house where I lived with my wife and kids below the Fire Station. I dug out my house key, scrubbed my boots off on the frost bitten ground, went inside downstairs, chunked a couple of logs on the coals and stretched out in front of the heater and began to thaw. 

My wife got up to get the kids ready for school, I guess, and probably smelled me. She gave her normal questions and directive:
“Ya’ll have a bad one?”
“Yep.”
 “Are you OK?”
 “Yep.”
 “Good don’t leave that stinkin Fire Gear in the house.”
“Yes Mam.” - She is a jewel, we been together more than 3 decades.

I showered and put on a uniform, kissed them all and headed out to do my 24 hour shift at the North Spartanburg Fire Dept.

 
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