“THE DAY OUR LIVES CHANGED FOREVER”
On January 15th, 1994, during the wee hours of a cold, Saturday morning, a handful of firefighters lie in their bunk beds at the firehouse. A few of us were talking to one another in the bunk room while others were playing cards in the kitchen. Spending a majority of our weekend nights staying at the fire station was a common thing for the older ones of us (mostly because of our brotherhood and how much we liked to be around one another). More often than not, our conversations would lead all the way throughout the night and up until daylight the next day however, no one really seemed to care as we were having fun. You knew you had the other person's back and they knew it, too. On this morning, with several inches of snow on the ground outside and major roadways closed to emergency traffic only, we had already made sure we had things for breakfast at the fire station because we knew this day had a possibility of being a busy one for us firefighters. We expected calls such as car accidents, running errands for elderly shut ins, and other weather-related emergencies. Not one time did any of us mention anything like what was about to unfold!
The time on the digital clock read 5:50 a.m. when the emergency fire phone rang. As usual, we curiously hurried to the dispatcher’s office because we could often tell from the call-taker’s reaction whether it was just another false call or an actual emergency. The dispatcher answered the phone and took down information from a lady reporting a house fire. Other firefighters immediately got their handhelds and made one last stop by the dispatcher's office to see where the fire was located. While the dispatcher continued to get the information, the other firemen were running downstairs to don their turnouts. Lights throughout the firehouse were coming on and the sounds of engines were heard as the bay doors were being raised. The emergency radio tones were set and within minutes the sounds of the sirens were piercing the morning air. The firemen were in the trucks and on their way to a scene in which none of us will ever forget!
At the time, it all seemed like clockwork. The last responding truck had left the building, the bay doors were closed back, and then the all-to-familiar silence inside the station other than the radio communication over the base. Firefighters were now on the road and rushing to the fire. We had responded to several house fires throughout the years in all sorts of weather and during all hours of the day. At first, this did not feel different than any other fire. As some of the other firefighters started responding from their homes, the radio communication traffic picked up (a lot of it with their sirens wailing in the background). It was all a common thing for us. Everything was falling right into place.
The time on the clock read 5:56 a.m. when the fire phone rang again. This time it would be different, REALLY DIFFERENT. A frantic, female caller almost seemed to be crying when she said “tell them to hurry, there’s a man burning up in that house”. The most eerie part of that telephone call was the sound of a man moaning in the background just before she hang up. Was it the victim or was it just another person at her residence? Only the good Lord knows! Maybe it’s best we never did! Whichever be the case, how would it affect our lives both on the scene and throughout our firefighting careers? The dispatcher picked up the base receiver and notified the responding units of the most horrific possibility. For just a few seconds, there was a silence over the radio like never before until someone acknowledged the traffic with a simple “10-4”.
Firemen arrived on the scene as the clock read 6:03 a.m. Within minutes, one of firefighters acknowledged dispatch that there indeed was a body inside of the structure and to contact the coroner. In 47 years since the establishment of the Betsy Layne Fire Department, we hadn’t even had to deal with a serious firefighter injury much less a fire-related death. This was so different! How could this be?
With tears in their eyes and sadness in their hearts, fifteen Betsy Layne firefighters fought the blaze throughout the morning hours until it was under control. Although their efforts were valiant, there was nothing that could be done for the victim as the fire had already claimed the life of 83-year-old William “Bill” Hammonds. During his working career, Mr. Hammonds had been a beloved school teacher for many of those same firefighters who were there that day so that made it even more difficult!
The Hammonds' fire will be remember forever. Most of our current membership can only react on what they are told concerning this horrific event as they were not members at the time however the ones of us who were here to make that call still remember this like it was yesterday. A few firemen simply could not deal with the pressure and later left our department. Our lives will never be the same yet, still, a group of us stood strong together and kept protecting our community. Ready to respond in a moment's notice.
Since that fateful day, four more civilians have perished in three additional house fires in the Betsy Layne fire protection district.