Charleston church honors emergency responders

CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP)--Four months after nine local firefighters were killed in a furniture store blaze, members of Charleston Baptist Church honored emergency responders with special services featuring a guest speaker who knows what it's like to lay his life on the line to save others.

Charleston Baptist lost one of its members, firefighter Brad Baity, when the Sofa Super Store caught fire June 18. The church secretary, Rita Varnadoe, said the community is trying to move on and the church wanted to do something to recognize the unique work of firefighters, police and paramedics.

Tommy Neiman, a firefighter and paramedic with the St. Lucie Fire District in Fort Pierce, Fla., delivered a message in all three services at Charleston Baptist Oct. 14. While death is a regular part of an emergency responder's job, that doesn't make it easier to cope, he noted.

Neiman, an ordained minister, pointed to John 15:13, which says, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

"We are called to do this work, and we know full well that we may be called upon to pay the ultimate sacrifice, but we can know the Bible tells us there's no greater love than we're willing to go in and try to rescue someone," Neiman told Baptist Press. "God gives us a love in our hearts for our fellow man to be doing this type of work."

President Bush, during a visit to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., Oct. 7, said it takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter.

"It begins with a different sense of direction," Bush said. "When an area becomes too dangerous for everybody else, you take it over. When others are looking for the exits, our firefighters are looking for the way in. When the frightened occupants of a burning building are rushing down the stairwell, our firefighters are going the opposite direction -- up the stairs and toward the flames."

Jack Moore, pastor of Charleston Baptist, said about 15 emergency responders attended one of the three recognition services.

"We recognized the police officers, state troopers, firefighters and EMT people," Moore said. "Tommy basically issued a challenge to be faithful and to stay the course and to use their positions in the community in a positive way. He was really an encouragement to all of us."

Neiman was named firefighter of the year in Florida in 2003, and his "Sirens for the Cross" ministry takes him to churches and various venues across the nation where he tells how faith corresponds with an emergency responder’s work.

He told BP he thinks the Charleston community is seeing some good come from the tragedy that killed the most firefighters since 9/11.

"I think it's just like anywhere else, that with such a huge loss it's slow. But it's, I think, turning hearts toward the Lord and helping people focus on the bigger picture, which is what's beyond life," Neiman said.

"Looking at our own mortality, first responders see death on a routine basis, and we have to realize that that very thing could affect us and we need to be prepared for eternity. I think that helps for people's hearts to be more receptive and more willing to look at the longer picture and what's important.”

While at Charleston Baptist, Neiman spoke with some firefighters who were at the furniture store the day the men were killed.

"One of the captains told me one of the toughest things was being there and helping and literally pulling out the nine bodies of the firefighters," Neiman said. "In talking with him, he said it was a pain like you wouldn't believe. It was a deep hurt and sadness....

"Being a fellow believer, his only comfort could come from God and knowing God would have to hold him up and sustain him and help him to be strong for the fellow men in his company," Neiman said. "He expressed gratefulness to be in a relationship with the Lord, to be able to be strong for those guys and to be able to experience that peace that passes all understanding as the Bible says, to get through what he had to get through with the funeral and the aftermath."

What touched his heart the most during his visit to Charleston, Neiman said, was getting to drive by the charred remains of the Sofa Super Store, which looks the same as it did when the last smoldering ashes burned out.

"It's still taped off, but what really is touching is the nine crosses," he said. "That's really quite a statement in itself."

A group of firefighters had pounded nine crosses made of white PVC pipe into the ground in front of the store shortly after the men died. The crosses became a memorial for the lives lost, and they were surrounded by American flags and flowers.

Al Smith, pastor of Pinecrest Baptist Church in Charleston, lost one of his church members, Billy Hutchinson, in the fire at the furniture store. He said Hutchinson's mother still attends Pinecrest regularly.

"It's tough for her. It's one of those day-at-a-time kind of things," Smith told BP. "The hard part is every time you look in the paper and you're reminded. It's kind of like you've started to get on with your life and the next thing you know, you open the front page and it's a brand new item. It's brought right back up."

Neiman's goal is to help get churches across the nation in a position to help emergency responders deal with loss after unfortunate events like the one in Charleston.

"One of the things I love to do at churches is to be that common ground between them and their area responders," Neiman said. "... Before tragedy happens, they've built some ground, they've built some relationships and they've been able to minister to these people and be there for them so that when an incident happens -- whether it's a police officer shot or a fireman killed -- there's already an avenue of communication there."

Each time Neiman speaks to a group of first responders, he gives them free copies of his book, "Sirens for the Cross," in which he recounts 15 of the most significant emergency calls he has answered. Those calls clearly illustrate God's divine presence in times of trouble, Neiman said.


Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press. To contact Tommy Neiman, visit www.tommyneiman.com or call 772-465-5386.

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