Ten years ago today, the little town of Ghent became enveloped in a haze of chaos, screams and death.
A propane explosion at the Little General gas station had turned dozens of lives upside down.
According to a first responder from the explosion, the aftermath was an assault on the senses.
“You could hear the radios going off and people screaming constantly,” Craig “Preacher” Dorsey Sr. said. “The building was just gone. You could smell the wood burning from the explosion, but you could smell something else too. It may sound crazy, but you could smell death and blood in the air.”
Preacher said he watched as “big, burly men” hugged each other and cried. People tried their best to work in the freezing conditions, as the wind chill was -9 that day, he said.
Preacher said first responders “train for the worst and pray for the best,” but nothing could have prepared the families for the loss that they were about to go through.
Four people – Ghent Fire Capt. Fred Burroughs; Preacher’s son, Craig “Toad” Dorsey Jr.; and two propane technicians, Glenn Bennett and Jeffrey Lee Treadway – were killed instantly.
“I knew Toad was dead,” Preacher said. “I just knew it in my heart, but I went anyway. That’s what you do. When you put on the badge, whether it’s fire, EMS or police, you know that you may not make it.”
When he found out that Toad had died, Preacher’s reaction surprised himself.
“I just remember saying, ‘Please don’t let him get uncovered,’ “ Preacher said. “‘He doesn’t like the cold. Please don’t let him get cold.’ “
In the days that followed, the man known as “Preacher” for his work as a chief chaplain would find himself questioning God and the plans of the universe.
“Why didn’t God take me instead of Toad?” Preacher asked. “I’ve learned that you can’t question it, though.
“Toad followed in my footsteps every step of the way, right down to both of us being first responders. A pastor once told me that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ It’s a comfort to know that he followed in my footsteps because he loved me.”
The love from his son has helped Preacher get through these last 10 years. They haven’t been easy, he said, but the time for sadness and self-pity are over.
“We’re going to do something for someone else to celebrate the lives of those we lost,” Preacher said. “We’re having a pancake dinner to raise money for a friend, Jeff Pittman. That’s Monday evening at IHOP.
“We just looked at the 10th anniversary and figured it was time to celebrate their lives instead of the tomb and gloom. We just decided to celebrate by helping someone else.”
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Another family affected by the explosion is following suit.
“To help out someone else,” said Capt. Fred Burrough’s wife, Hazel. The Ghent Volunteer Fire Department is hosting its 10th annual Ghent Memorial Blood Drive at the fire department today from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. “That morning is normally spent with the families, and we place wreaths on the crosses that are at the site.”
Hazel said she and the other families have become close because they understand pain. Loss may be loss, but it’s nice to know you’re not alone, she said.
“I don’t understand what it’s like to lose a child,” Hazel said. “But I know what it’s like to lose a husband. They’re all such wonderful people. It was a tragic loss for so many.”
Hazel said she thinks about her husband and his goofy self several times a day.
“There are still times when I want to tell Fred about something that has happened at work or something I need comforted abut,” she said. “He was my best friend. The kids still talk about their dad all the time.
“I don’t know how people get through grief without God. I didn’t want to make it, but I had to. I could have crawled into the casket with him on the day of his funeral. The sting of loss may have lessened, but the void is still there.”
Hazel’s face still lights up when she talks about her husband. She laughs at his experiences and loves him dearly. It shows at every story.
“As a sports official, he’d thrown people out of ball games,” Hazel said with a smile. “Coach Barksdale always tells about one. Before the first quarter was over at a huge game, Fred had already thrown the opposing coach out for too many technical fouls. He was the hero of Beckley that night.”
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While official reports say four were killed in the explosion, a fifth victim – Ghent Volunteer Firefighter Donnie Caldwell – died three years later as a result of his injuries.
The survivors included Joyce Walker, Leta Farley, Patricia Mullens and Donna Meadows. Each woman suffered injuries as a result of the explosion, but according to Hazel, they have mostly recovered and are staying strong.
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The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) put out a report in 2008 about the explosion. The report said that the propane tank’s “quality and proximity were too close to the building and violated several laws.” The withdrawal valve that was opened at the scene was also defective.
Several suggestions were made to state officials and most of them have been followed, according to media reports.
“I just hate that we had to lose our loved ones to effect change,” Hazel Burroughs said. “Now, you can’t handle propane without plenty of training and people follow hazardous materials more effectively.
“I can say that something positive came out of this and I hope we’ll never have to deal with something like this again.”
— Email: cneff@
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