Any other Tuesday afternoon, the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department would have been gearing up for an evening of bingo. Not this Tuesday. Though women cooked chili and brewed coffee on the main floor, their efforts were for anything but a game. It was the least these volunteers could do to warm the firefighters when they took a break from battling a gas station explosion that seriously injured five and killed four, including two of their own.
Throughout the early afternoon, family members of victims arrived unaware — or possibly suspecting — they were about to hear devastating news. Moments after they were led upstairs into a private area, their cries and wails echoed through the building, carrying with them a sorrow that permeated an otherwise peaceful atmosphere. “Oh God, no! Oh God. My baby!” one woman cried. Then came pastors, other family members, and, by mid-afternoon, a teenage girl who apparently lost her father. She screamed, over and over again: “I want my daddy!”
Dismal as it may have been at the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department, there was evidence that the foundation of this community is something not even an explosion could destroy. About noon, a neighbor affiliated with a church near the explosion unlocked the church to provide emergency workers with a place to warm themselves, body and soul.
Another neighbor, William Manning of Cool Ridge, stopped by the department to see how he could help. He had felt the explosion at his house, a considerable distance from the site, and had already volunteered his services earlier at the scene. “It felt like there was a big explosion right next door,” he said. “I knew everybody at that store, and I just couldn’t believe it.” In fact, Manning said, his neighbor was one of the store’s managers, and that’s mainly what drove him to get to the scene as quickly as possible. “I’m not on the fire department. I just wanted to do what I could,” he said.
He was not prepared for what he found there. “Debris everywhere,” he said. “ … Just unbelievable. … I knew everybody at that store, and I just couldn’t believe it.” Soon, he found himself helping to carry bodies. “It’s something I’d never seen before in my life, and it’s something I hope I’ll never see again,” he said. Manning did not elaborate on his neighbor’s condition.
Later, at the fire station, American Red Cross Disaster Services volunteers arrived with refreshments and trained health counselors who wasted no time comforting those in need. Red Cross spokeswoman Sheri McGraw said the volunteers were there to make sure everyone was comfortable. They placed a warming truck at the scene, and they delivered hot chocolate to emergency workers sifting through debris in freezing temperatures.
Some Red Cross volunteers were assessing minor damage at neighboring homes rocked by the 100-square-yard blast; any of the people living in those homes in need of shelter would be accommodated, McGraw said. Most importantly, the Red Cross volunteers would ensure this volunteer fire station remained a welcome place. In disaster situations, McGraw explained, command centers such as this one become a meeting place for the community, and that in itself is a huge part of the recovery.
“It’s going to be exceptionally hard for the department,” Chief Jim Belcher said. The department has between 25 and 30 volunteer firefighters on its roster. Even those who needed comfort for their own loss continued to assist at the scene.
As 3 p.m. approached, media poured into the facility, setting up cameras and arranging tables for a scheduled press conference. Law enforcement officers arrived, many of them emotionally affected by what they had seen. “This is tragedy on top of tragedy,” Raleigh County Sheriff’s Capt. Steve Tanner lamented, noting that not only had this fire department responded to a tragedy, but to a tragedy that involved their own.
Still, he noted, it could have much worse. Had it happened earlier in the morning, the store would have had more customers. Had it happened in the afternoon, school children may have been there. Had the explosion caused the store’s gasoline fuel tanks to explode, there’s no telling what the scene may have been like. “That’s not to belittle these losses in any way,” Tanner said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.” He and other police officers who saw the scene described it as “completely leveled,” “only toothpicks,” “nothing left.”
Still, as the work day came to a close, friends and neighbors began arriving at the fire department-turned-command center, offering food or simply a shoulder to cry on. “It’s a small community. We’re close-knit,” Raleigh County Sheriff Danny Moore told reporters from larger cities, some as far away as Roanoke, Va. “Any time there’s a loss, this is going to affect not just this community but the entire state. That’s the way we are here in West Virginia.”
State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis has released the names of the four people who were killed in the gas station explosion Tuesday. The people who died in the explosion were Frederick Allen Burroughs, 51, of Cool Ridge, a volunteer firefighter and Raleigh County building inspector; Craig Lawrence Dorsey, 24, of MacArthur, a volunteer firefighter and EMT. Injured was Donnie Caldwell, 71, of Cool Ridge, was taken to Charleston Area Medical Center’s General Hospital. Caldwell worked as a volunteer firefighter.
Also killed were Jeffrey Lee Treadway, 21, of Beckley, and Glenn Ray Bennett, 44, of Beckley, who were both working on the propane tanks. Injured include Donna Meadows, 45, of Cool Ridge, was working as a manager at the store, when it exploded. Patricia Mullens, 37, of Flat Top, worked at the Little General store. Joyce Walker, 63, of Odd, and Leta Farley, 41, of Flat Top, both worked at the Godfather’s Pizza inside the store. All four women are at Cabell-Huntington Hospital. Five patients still remain in the hospital.