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Midway at 50: Safety and a sense of community
By Jason Lesley
When the old Wheeler homeplace off the South Causeway caught fire in 1961, it burned to the ground.
It took more than 30 minutes for fire trucks to come from Georgetown. Firemen arrived in time to see the roof collapse and spray down the smoldering timbers, according to Shorter Rybolt, who was away at The Citadel when the house, which belonged to his great-grandmother, was lost to fire.
Something needed to be done, and a group of men including Ed Mills, Wallace Pate, Boyd Marlow, Judge Henry Deer and Col. Seth Dingle got together in 1962 and decided to start Midway Fire Department. They hired Fire Chief William Dotter, bought a 1924 Seagrave Pumper from the city of Columbia and recruited volunteers outfitted with hand-me-down equipment to respond to calls.
A second truck was added — it was a new 1963 Ford that cost $11,600 — and both were housed in a garage near what is today the Gullies Shell station on Highway 17. The chief lived in an apartment above the trucks.
For the next 15 years, clerks at the Litchfield Inn and the Seagull Motel would answer the fire phones. Each had a list of all the volunteers.
“One would start at the top, calling everybody, and the other would start at the bottom,” said John Stewart, a professional fire investigator who signed on as a volunteer with Midway in 1977 and quickly rose to assistant chief. “You just had to wait and see who showed up.”
Midway has come a long way and will celebrate its 50th anniversary Sunday at 2 p.m. with a program at its headquarters at 67 St. Paul’s Place off Willbrook Boulevard.
What started as one small volunteer station that sounded like it could have been in TV’s fictional Mayberry has grown into a department providing rescue on land and sea, life support and transportation, hazardous materials response and fire protection from stations in Litchfield, Beaumont Drive in Pawleys Island and DeBordieu with 64 full-time employees and 26 volunteers.
“We have truly been fortunate over the years to have great people supported by visionary leaders within the department and the county, topped off by the support of the citizens,” said Chief Doug Eggiman.
Midway didn’t always have a full-time chief before Mike Mock was hired in 1978.
For brief periods of time after Dotter’s death it was left up to the volunteers, and pharmacist Glenn Cox remembers the day he was all alone.
“At one time,” he said, “we just had the big siren on top of the station. Volunteers would hear it and coming running. One day a call came in about a fire, and I triggered the siren. Nobody showed up. It was just me.
“People were working and away from home. Thank goodness it wasn’t a building fire, just a fire along the road, and I was able to put it out.”
Cox said the fire department was the “heart of the community” in those days. “Just about everybody over here was a volunteer fireman.”
The department relied on donations — families were asked to give $50 a year and received a card with a picture of a fire truck on it to put in their windows. Everybody got the same treatment, regardless of whether they had a card. But grateful homeowners usually contributed once firefighters had saved their house.
“It meant a lot to the community,” Stewart said, “to know we were there.”
The annual Fireman’s Ball, with its $25 tickets, filled out the department’s budget.
“This community has always responded to the department’s needs,” Mock said. “If we needed funding, donations would come in.”
Expansion came when the department’s new yellow truck was parked in a garage at Rybolt’s house on Rybolt Road near the South Causeway in 1980. That was Station 2 for 11 years, and Rybolt was so often first on the scene of fires that fellow volunteers accused him of sleeping in the truck.
“We needed an engine down this way,” said Rybolt.
By this time, some firefighters had pagers and calls went out quicker.
“Whoever was awake showed up,” Rybolt said.
The system was not perfect. On very cold nights, the truck was taken back to the main station to keep the water in the tank from freezing. That’s what happened when the Cribb house caught fire on Pawleys Island.
Stewart and Rybolt arrived in full gear, but the fire truck had to come from the main station at Litchfield all the way around by the South Causeway because the North Causeway was out.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” Stewart remembers a neighbor asking as they stood helplessly waiting on the truck.
Cold weather always caused problems. Frozen nozzles kept water from flowing at a house fire in Litchfield Country Club, and Mock handed Stewart a portable fire extinguisher to use inside the house while he tried to thaw the hoses out.
The freak snow of 1989 included a house fire. It was Dec. 23, and the hoses were covered in snow and frozen stiff by the time the fire was out, Stewart said. The wind chill dipped to 10 degrees that night, and firefighters’ coats were covered in ice.
“It was New Year’s Eve before the hoses thawed enough to get them out,” he said.
Glenn Cox laughs at himself when he remembers the days when he was trying to hide the loss of his hair. He was wearing a cap over a hairpiece while riding outside a fire engine. His cap blew off, and he caught the hairpiece just as it took flight. He went to the barber shop the next day and has been proudly bald ever since.
And no blooper reel is complete without a fire engine going the wrong way.
Stewart said he was at the station with Mock and Bill Heathman when a caller reported a fire at the Litchfield Retreat. Stewart couldn’t place the location, but Heathman said, “Follow me.”
The fire truck roared out of the station, heading south, and when they pulled up at Pawleys Pier Village, they knew something was amiss.
The truck turned around and headed north.
“The trouble,” Stewart said, “was that we had to pass Col. Dingle’s house both ways. He called up and said, ‘Where are these people going?’ ”
One of the biggest changes at the department was its partnership with the rescue squad. Stewart was its first EMT, as Midway began its transformation from a fire department to a life-saving organization.
“When I moved down here, I was the medical squad,” Stewart said. “When somebody got hurt, Chief [Harold] Malcolm would call me and say ‘I need you to come take care of this person.’ ”
Around 1980, Midway formed a partnership with Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire and Rescue and got its first ambulance. It was so outdated it couldn’t be used to transport patients, Stewart said, but it enabled Midway to provide first response medical service until an ambulance arrived from Georgetown.
Dr. Victor Archambeau was among the first to train as an EMT, and when he recorded the highest score in the state on the paramedic qualifying exam, he decided he should go on and get a medical degree. He even designed the patch for the rescue squad uniform while sitting at Stewart’s kitchen table.
The Pawleys Island-Litchfield Rescue Squad later combined with Midway Fire Department, and firefighters were cross-trained as EMT’s.
During the transition, Eggiman said, there was no advanced life-support on the Waccamaw Neck. “Anytime somebody was having a heart attack, or something like that, we would respond and pick them up and have to call Georgetown County EMS to meet us down the highway at Seagull or somewhere along the way. Their paramedic would get in our rescue squad ambulance to start treatment along the way.”
In 1986 Mock hired Midway’s first career firefighters: Sam Rudolph, Jim Berends and Eggiman.
Rudolph was an experienced firefighter with the city of Georgetown and proved to be a mentor to a generation at Midway.
“Somebody took the time to teach me the ins and outs and I wanted to share that information with the younger ones,” Rudolph said.
“He taught us the right way to be officers,” Eggiman said.
The family aspect of the Midway department was so strong that Eggiman invited Rudolph to be in his wedding when he married a department volunteer, Eve Casselman.
Those first three professionals worked in 24-hour shifts with 48 hours off. “There were no holidays,” Rudolph said. “When it was your turn to work, you worked, even if it was Christmas.”
In 1987, Mock and the late Brenda Brewer, Pawleys Island-Litchfield Rescue Squad chief, put their heads together and started Midway’s firefighter-paramedic program.
County Council approved the plan and three paramedics, Tom Boyd, Bill Simpson and Bill Ellerbe, were hired. The three completed firefighter training, and Eggiman became a paramedic, starting the department on its way to having a cross-trained staff. Midway’s annual award to the top firefighter-paramedic is named for Boyd.
“What was neat for those three original paramedics,” Eggiman said, “was they got to develop the program. They were already seasoned paramedics.”
Three more firemen were hired soon afterward, giving each shift three employees with capabilities of responding to almost any emergency. “I have been proud over the years, even before I was chief,” Eggiman said, “that we have always been on the front end of technology and service. The firefighter-paramedic program is a good example of that.”
Over the course of the next 10 years, Midway Fire and Rescue built three new fire stations, and today a shift consists of 19 personnel at each location.
But today’s Midway Fire and Rescue was far in the future when Mock first arrived here in 1978. His first big fire was the hammock factory, and the chief introduced himself to some volunteers as they arrived at the fire, one of the biggest in memory here. Stewart said it was fueled by dust and rope fiber in the air and the lacquer used on the wood.
By the early 1980s, Mock realized that an all-volunteer fire department was becoming a thing of the past. Training requirements were getting burdensome, and the area was starting to grow beyond a volunteer department’s ability.
He could see the inherent danger of fire for beach houses at Pawleys Island. They were built close together and on pilings, allowing the wind to feed fire from underneath. Fire hopped from one to another on many occasions, and Mock feared that dozens could burn at once without better equipment and professional personnel.
Water spouts damaged 30 homes at North Litchfield during Hurricane David in 1979, and provided Mock another disaster scenario his department was ill-prepared for.
Eggiman credits Mock with pushing through the idea of a special tax district for the fire department and impact fees to help it keep pace with growth.
“Mike was very, very instrumental in getting us where we are today,” Eggiman said. “When he came onboard, this department was a volunteer department with one station. Really, to me it’s through his vision that the bond was created and the county moved forward to allow all three stations to be built. The same thing with engines. So many things that positioned the department to grow with the community came when Mike was chief.
“If you were here in the early ’80s, Pawleys Island was not growing like it did later. There was no such thing as Willbrook Plantation or The Reserve. They were all woods. There was no Pawleys Plantation or Prince George. Having that vision to know we are going to need a station in the Litchfield area and know that station can become a reality before major growth hits, that’s huge. People have mixed feelings on impact fees, but they have allowed the department to grow with the community. When you look at the cost of equipment now, a heart monitor costs $36,000. Mike had the vision for a firefighter-paramedic program back then that a person having a heart attack needs a greater level of care than an EMT can provide.
“So much of where we are today, we owe to Mike.”