Kevin Kenny was watching TV reports about the tornadoes that killed over 300 people across seven southern states when two half-idle thoughts occurred to him simultaneously: "Those people need help" and "I'm on vacation next week."
When Kenny logged on to Facebook, he found a post from a buddy asking if he was going to head south. He decided that he was and said so on his own Facebook page. Pretty soon, several brother firefighters from let him know that he'd have company.
Seven Baldwin Independent members will leave for Alabama on Saturday. As volunteers, they're seeking donations to help defray the costs of the trip. People who chip in will, in a small way, be going with them to help those ravaged by some of the worst single-day storms in American history.
A fundraiser at bar on Custer Avenue in on Wednesday night attracted friends and fellow firefighters from throughout the South Hills and put some serious coin in the kitty immediately.
Kenny originally planned to travel to hard-hit Tuscaloosa, but a surplus of volunteers has already poured in to that area. Then, he heard about a town called Hackleburg.
"The fire chief explained to me that the Red Cross wasn't even there yet," Kenny said as supporters filtered into C.J. Chugs. "His fire station is no longer standing."
While seven states absorbed the impact of hundreds of tornadoes and intense storm cells, Alabama was the hardest hit. To date, the death toll in the state stands at 238—a number sure to be revised upward as cleanup and recovery efforts move forward. Whole towns were virtually eradicated.
The Baldwin crew, made up of Assistant Chief Kenny, Captain Bill Connors, Tom Hamilton, Joe Kreil, Jason Smith, Christian Krantz and Scott Nath, will help cover fire calls in Hackleburg, help with search and rescue, repair damaged firefighting equipment and pretty much do whatever is needed after they arrive.
Connors said that even more Independent firefighters volunteered to go, but the company did not want to leave Baldwin shorthanded in the event of an emergency here.
Like Kenny, Connors was moved by the plight of Hackleburg, where 29 of its 1,500 residents perished and banks, schools, churches and the town supermarket were leveled by the storms.
"The chief was literally crying on the phone, saying, 'We need help,'" Connors said.
Baldwin Independent is a volunteer company. Each man who goes to Alabama will incur personal expenses and use precious vacation days from his regular job.
"You know, it sort of started out as a joke: 'Are you going?'" Connors said. "Twenty minutes later, it was, 'Sure, when are we going?'
"We all have to work. We all have to pay the bills, but hey, these folks are in serious trouble down there."
In addition to the support of friends and family members, local businesses jumped in to help the seven Independent firefighters: Enterprise Rent-A-Car gave the crew a bargain-basement rate on a quad-cab pickup, and U-Haul pitched in with a 6x12 trailer. Kenny's boss at Shearer's donated 50 cartons of potato chips and pretzels.
Connors said that he and the others can't really envision what they will find at the end of their 1,300-mile journey.
"The good, the bad and the ugly I guess," he said. "It will be sad to see people who had this wonderful town, and now, it's gone. I've done some research, and the pictures reminded me of Baldwin.
"But when we leave, we want to know we made a difference."
"That's what we do," Kenny said. "We try to help people. I'm just compelled to go."
If you wish to make a contribution to support the Independent Fire Company's mission of mercy, someone will be at the firehouse at 3049 Churchview Ave. after 6 p.m. on Friday to accept donations.
The men leave early Saturday morning and will return late next week.