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The siren would wail, and we could hear it from a mile or two away. Posted modestly atop a pole of maybe 12 or 15 feet, outside the old block building on 3rd Street in Simpsonville, this small red speaker would roar with all its ear-splitting might, echoing across the fields and through the hollows, for minutes that seemed interminable to those nearby. And barely would it stop or even fade, and you’d tune in from all directions the cacophony of small echoes from trucks and cars, as men dashed from their fields and barns and factories and homes, and followed the siren’s call to the middle of the oldest part of Simpsonville.
These were firefighters, volunteers one and all, each notified not by cell phone or fancy radio but simply by that siren, activated by the man who took the calls on a dedicated line, drawing the firefighters to the trucks for a job that must be done.
These were your fathers, your brothers, your uncles, cousins, church friends or those related to your friends. You knew most by name. You watched them play softball, work in your field occasionally or coach you in summer baseball. They might wash off your produce or chop your beef or arrange the cans just so on shelves. They might mold a piece of steel or plastic or coddle tobacco and milk cows all day long.
But no matter that, these were men of dedication, men whose devotion you recognized not by their fancy red vehicles with decals and special features but by the little red lights hidden in the grilles of their cars and trucks, lights they switched on along with a small siren to reply to that wailing cry that they were coming, the fire would be fought, perhaps the house or barn or field saved from catastrophe.
These words spill out of your mind and across the pages, conjuring images of heroes two generations ago, because you have read and heard the tragic news about those 19 men who died fighting a horrible fire in the scrub mountains of western Arizona.
These were elite firefighters, the Navy Seals or Green Berets of their specialized warfare, deployed into extreme battles with the most modern technology and techniques, the bravest sent to duel the most dire, the fearless to face the most daunting, Davids with pebbles to fling at the Philistines of Flame. No one could do it better, and we lost them all. Nineteen new graves will be dug. Men who died horribly and tragically will be honored and mourned, bemoaned and beknighted.
Only the good die young. These were very young. One was 23, the oldest 41. Nearly half in their 20s. They were like fighter pilots and astronauts and paratroopers and demolition experts. They knew their jobs, and they were not afraid to do them. They lived with death, and when the end was near, you believe they must have looked into its face and sneered the sneer of the unbelieving, defiant and hardly deferential until a horrid curtain of all-consuming, fickle inferno was too much to endure.
Firefighters have always been heroes. To children they fetch cats from trees and special toys from smoky bedrooms. They respond quickly and immediately and do their best for the best possible ending. They were willing to climb a mile into the sky near a dozen Septembers ago and try to rescue those trapped in their buildings bisected by jet planes.
For decades we have watched them, as their professions became more, well, professional, their equipment safer and more sophisticated, their firehouses more accommodating and their training broader and deeper.
The men you knew, guys who worked diligently next to your father and your uncle, they were trained, too, but they were fighting flames with water pistols compared to today. They were neophytes compared to the men – and now women – who understand the how and the why and not just the what they must do and when they must do it.
Fighting fires in Shelby County has mostly always been about volunteers, whether roused by a bell to go to a neighbors’ barn to pass buckets toward a flaming roof or hanging onto a horse-drawn wagon as it sprinted down a dirt road. They signed up and learned the basics. They brought along their sons, who hung around firehouses until 20 years later someone made them a chief.
They learned to pry people from wrecked vehicles and push air back into lungs, to lift logs off a trapped man’s legs and to get an arm out of a piece of farm machinery. They hefted overturned tractors and dived into murky lakes and creeks. They learned to crawl under smoke and chop through roofs and reach the places where people were hiding for their lives and in fact to deliver those lives. Yes, if as the songwriter said, our heroes have always been cowboys, well so have firefighers.
Tragedy follows them around to write plots and subplots in literature and theater, to create serials of a passionate band of brothers and sisters who see a need and raise their hands and say, “Let me know, and I’ll be there.”
Chances are very good that somewhere today in Shelby County a siren will sound. Maybe it will be deputy or a an ambulance or maybe it will be the roused volunteers called to arms. Maybe there will be a fire, and maybe a trained hero will go to fight it, to save a home, a business or even a life.
In Arizona, 19 men who answered that call didn’t come home on Monday.
And they are our heroes.