AUTRYVILLE — Surrounded by bricks and cinder blocks on the ground around him, Chief Andrew Hawkins spent a lot time staring at damaged fire trucks, a roof sitting on top of them.
For firefighters of the Autryville Fire Department, a lot of time was spent inside their headquarters on North Hotel Street. That all changed Tuesday evening when a tornado collapsed the building. The first thing on Hawkins’ mind was the well-being of his comrades, sheltered by fire trucks.
“My biggest thing was were my guys OK,” Hawkins said. “I had eight people inside the building when it actually hit.”
When Hawkins was dispatched, their safety was unknown. But after everyone was safe, their next priority was people in the community. From that point, their focus was the damage of the building and other equipment.
“Life safety was our primary goal at that point,” Hawkins said.
There were no reported deaths, but a few homes were damaged in the town, located on N.C. 24. In the wake of the tornado, damages were evaluated by emergency and insurance officials. It’s too early to tell, but Hawkins believes the estimated amount of damage is up to $2 million.
“The biggest thing is our desire to get back to functioning as a fire department,” Hawkins said. “Right now, it’s just getting a handle on our equipment and and making sure people in the community have food and water.”
Emergency Management director Ronald Bass took pictures for preliminary damage assessment.
“They got a ways to go,” Bass said. “We’re going to do everything we can to assist them and get them back on their feet and to make sure all the calls get covered. They can rely on automatic and neutral aid. It’s not like the Town of Autryville or the fire district does not have any fire protection. They’re still going to respond to calls. Right now, we’re trying to regroup and see what direction we need to go in.”
Kenneth Langston, treasurer of the Autryville Fire Department Board of Directors, is assuming that the building will be a total loss, since the building is now unsafe.
“It’s tough to see,” Langston said. “We had a lot of stuff stored in there.”
For Bobby Scott, a member of the Autryville Fire Department Board, it’s an emotional moment.
“We helped build part of the fire department and it’s really tough,” Scott said. “It’s very heartbreaking.”
Despite the matter, Hawkins expressed how the fire crew received a lot of support from the community and concerned neighbors.
“So it’s really nothing we have to do that the community is not already doing for us,” he said. “We just need to get our guys mentally and physically ready to start running fire calls again.”
Some of the help came from the City of Fayetteville, churches and Sampson County emergency departments.
“We have truckloads from various businesses that are delivering food, water and drinks,” Hawkins said about the abundance of generosity. “I think we’re going to have more food go bad, but that’s a great problem to have.”
Danny Baird of Bethany traveled to Autryville to help the department. His friend Ricky Chavis, a Stedman resident, cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner on a grill.
“It’s just the citizen thing to do — to help out any way you can,” Chavis said. “During a time like this, they have no way of fixing the food with the power out.”
With fallen trees in her neighbors yard, Angela Foster watched maintenance vehicles and television trucks go up and down the street, near the fire station. She decided lend a hand by raking leaves.
“It’s pretty bad and something you were not expecting,” Foster said. “People were at work and I was at a friend’s house. When I heard it on the news, everybody rushed in here to see what happened. It could have been worse.”
Sonny Herring also assisted with the raking.
“When people need help, people need to step forward,” Herring said. “The Lord put it in my spirit to come out to help people who needed help.”
Nearby Diana Rivera, owner of New 2 U Thrift Shop, was also busy cleaning leaves while her granddaughter, 3-year-old Alexandria Grace Sutton, passed out bottles of water. Despite minor damage to the roof on her building and other homes, she was thankful that more did not occur.
“I think we’re truly blessed,” Rivera said. “That’s how I feel. I have no reason to complain.”
Rivera said the store will assist a neighboring family who lost their home.
“That family was displaced from their home,” she said. “We have no power and we have downed trees. But as a community, just look around you. Everyone is helping everybody. This community is great and everybody pulls together.”
Plato Faircloth, town official, assisted with tree debris and other damages around town.
“First time I’ve have seen something like this in the town,” the lifelong resident said. “The fire department does a lot of stuff in town and I hope they’re back up and going soon.”
The department plans to start fundraising efforts through GoFundMe, an online crowdfunding source. In the meantime official updates regarding the department’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/autryvillefiredepartment
“It’s going to be a day-to-day process of how we rebuild and how we come back stronger,” Hawkins said.
Although the Tuesday tornado left the building in shambles, Hawkins stressed that the fire department will continue to be available if called. Temporary shelters will be setup on a blocked street.
“Right now, we’re going to continue to function just as we did before this happened,” he said.
(Chris Berendt|Sampson Independent)