Yazoo Valley Electric Power Association’s Wade O’Briant never expected his experience as a volunteer firefighter would cross paths with his current job as a line foreman. But one day, they did.
O’Briant and his crew were on their way to Lexington, Mississippi, in mid-December to complete a maintenance order when they saw flames and thick, black smoke coming from a small wooden house. Then, the elderly homeowner emerged.
“We saw him coming out of his house with burns on his hands and on his face,” said O’Briant, who’s worked at the Yazoo City, Mississippi, co-op for nine years. The homeowner, Robert Shaffer, 88, of Tchula, “was trying to light the furnace and it blew back in his face. We noticed the propane tank was not turned off,” a possible sign that gas was building up in the house.
O’Briant and his crew stopped and got to work. They escorted Shaffer to his daughter’s house next door, disconnected the power, and then discovered the tank was dangerously close to the flames.
“It was about 10 feet away from the house and if it got hot and a spark reached it, there’s no telling what would have happened,” said O’Briant.
Shortly after Shaffer’s daughter, Martha, called 911, volunteer fire departments from Tchula and Thornton arrived but with only one firefighter, the driver, on each truck. “These are small towns,” O’Briant explained. “We had to jump in.”
Dennis McFee happened to be driving on the same highway, about half a mile ahead, and, through his rearview mirror, saw smoke and that a co-op crew had stopped. “Normally, for liability reasons, we stay out of things like this,” said McFee, the co-op’s manager of member services. “But knowing the character of these guys, I knew they would not just stand there and not do anything.”
O’Briant grabbed a firehose off one of the trucks and was assisted by the rest of the team: Reggie Green, Garret McClellan, William Johnson and Johnathon Demita. Within minutes, the blaze was contained.
Shaffer was treated at a local burn unit and is expected to make a full recovery, said McFee. With his house destroyed, Shaffer now lives with his daughter.
The line crew’s involvement didn’t stop with the fire. Several days later, Green took up a collection at the office that netted about $500 in clothes, cash and replacement toiletries for Shaffer.
“I’m very proud of our crew’s response to this emergency,” said Ron White, the co-op’s general manager. “This is exactly the kind of reaction I’ve come to expect from these men. To me, they are heroes every day.”
Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.