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Chief’s actions at house fire questioned
By ANNA BROWN
A former Jonesville fire chief and the fire board chairman say the Kelly-Kelton fire chief's lack of experience put firefighters in danger during a blaze that destroyed a house Tuesday.
Newly appointed Kelly-Kelton Fire Commissioner Kindra Horne said she asked Chairman C.W. Garner for an emergency meeting of the board to discuss issues at the department. The meeting will be held Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the fire station. Union County Council appointed Horne, Greta Bailey and Ray Finch to the commission during its March meeting.
Kelly-Kelton Fire Chief Ben Hauser said firefighters did the best they could to extinguish the fire at the home of Michael and Sherry Robinson on 792 Bobby Faucette Road. He attributes any negative comments to a longstanding rift between Kelly-Kelton and Jonesville.
"Anything close to Jonesville there is always going to be an issue," he said. "I believe that is just the way it's going to be."
Hauser said he also has no idea who pulled a fire hose out of the house that two Jonesville firefighters were going to use.
"I asked our firefighters and nobody knows anything about it at all," he said.
Lt. D.J. Long with the Jonesville Fire Department said he and fellow firefighter Robert Ogle entered the burning home with an inch and three-quarter line, a Pike pole and a Halligan bar - a forcible entry tool used by firefighters and law enforcement.
Their intentions were to tear a hole in the ceiling, get to the fire, extinguish it and keep in the attic to lessen damage to the house, Long said.
"We got the hole tore out and reached down to get the hose, where we laid it at our feet," he said. "We reached down and the hose was gone. That posed a different problem for us and the fire came down on top of us."
Left in the dark, smoke-filled house without the hose - a firefighter's lifeline out of a burning structure - Long said he decided to rely on his 17 years of experience and not panic.
"Normally if something happens, you drop the hose and put your hand on it and follow it out of the building," he said. "We had no way of knowing how to get out other than follow the wall. Even then, you can get turned around that way - go in the wrong direction and run out of air."
Long said had he not been a guest in the home before - sometimes eating meals with Michael and Sherry Robinson - he might not have known the layout and might not have found the way out.
"It could have been a very bad outcome for me and Robert," he said.
It was Long's second brush with death in less than a year. In August he was severely burned when a freeze plug blew out of a tractor he was working on.
Long said he and Ogle could not see who removed the hose. The fire was in the Kelly-Kelton Fire District with Jonesville and Bonham fire departments on automatic mutual aid for structure fires. Longtime former Jonesville Fire Chief Jimmy Wilkins said a truck from the Kelly-Kelton fire department arrived first on the scene with Jonesville's truck arriving less than a minute later. Long said he is not sure if the hose he and Ogle were using came from a Kelly-Kelton truck or a Jonesville truck.
The fire, which was reported around 6:15 p.m., burned for several hours and destroyed the house. The Union County Sheriff's Office is assisting in the investigation. Sheriff David Taylor said Arson Investigator Scott Coffer had determined the fire was not suspicious in nature. Hauser said the fire likely was caused by an electrical short-circuit. Statements are being taken from others on the scene - including Robinson family members - about who removed the hose.
Wilkins, a firefighter for more than 41 years, was on the truck where controls are located and saw fire coming through the roof in two places after Long and Ogle went in. He said he wondered what had happened to escalate the blaze.
"They didn't have the hand line and it intensified in two places, one right after the other about 10 feet apart," he said. "I could see the roof sagging and I told them to get out."
Wilkins called Long on the radio two or three times before he answered.
"I didn't know if he was hearing me or not," he said. "I didn't know if the fire was coming in on them or not."
Wilkins said he is certain Jonesville Fire Department did have a line in the back door of the house where Long and Ogle entered, but he does not know if that is the line Long and Ogle were using.
Wilkins said Hauser approached him and asked him if he was aware there were Jonesville firefighters in the house.
"Like I didn't know that," he said. "Like I hadn't been doing this for almost 42 years."
Hauser, who was formerly the department's chaplain, was promoted to chief by the Kelly-Kelton Fire Board on Feb. 2. The embattled department had faced financial woes and Hauser, who has little firefighting experience or training, was chosen as chief because of his financial experience - he owns his own business.
Wilkins said he and others tried to voice their concerns about Hauser to fire board members but the comments fell on deaf ears.
Wilkins said he believes if Long and Ogle had had a hose, they could have cut the fire off.
"You know, it's all a Monday morning quarterback, but they believed they could and I have no reason to doubt them," he said.
Jonesville Fire Board Chairman Tommy Ivey, retired City of Spartanburg fire commander who assisted in the firefighting efforts at the Robinson house, said the Kelly-Kelton Fire Department needs help.
"There is no knowledge, no experience and apparently no common sense," he said. "When you put a white helmet (the chief's helmet) on somebody, that means that person is supposed to have the training, the knowledge and the experience and the responsibility to run a fire scene. When you have more than one company coming to a fire scene the younger people especially, when they see that white hat - they put confidence and faith in that white hat - that whoever that person is knows what he is doing will look out for their safety and not put them in jeopardy."
According to State Emergency Powers Act, Hauser was in control of the fire scene, Ivey said.
"By law it was his fire to direct as he saw fit and was capable of doing," he said. "But he could not direct it because he did not know what to do. By being in that shape he jeopardized the firefighters from Jonesville and Bonham because he caused them to double up on the work they had to do. I know for a fact some of those guys ran through four or five airpacks."
Ivey said the Kelly-Kelton Fire Board needs to sit down with a group of local fire chiefs, have them explain what is wrong at the department and how it can be fixed.
Hauser said the departments have worked together on other fires and property was saved - including a house fire on Brown's Creek Church Road in March where he said there was minimal damage. He said he did not think the Robinson house could have been saved.
"I just don’t believe they could have saved that house unless there was a fire truck sitting there with water when it started," he said. Hauser also said high winds hampered the firefighting efforts.
Michael Robinson, a former firefighter with Reidville Fire Department in Spartanburg County, said he did not see who removed the hose and he also wonders if damage to his house might have been lessened if the hose had not been removed. He said he is very thankful no one was injured and he thought by and large, firefighters did what they could.
"If the hose would have stayed with them, they might have been able to save more than was saved," he said. "All the rest of them did a real good job with what they had to work with."
The family was able to salvage some belongings. They are working with their insurance company and are living in a camper on the property, Robinson said.
"Just keep us in your prayers," he said.
(Posted April 6, 2015)