Gambrells end family's way of life as volunteer firemen

By Jim Fair, Editor
Published on Friday, May 16, 2014

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Left to right: David, Danny, Gerald and Steven Gambrell.

Left to right: David, Danny, Gerald and Steven Gambrell.



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Mayor Rick Danner reads a proclamation recognizing three Gambrell family members retiring as volunteer firemen. Danny, center, and Gerald Gambrell attended the city council meeting.

Mayor Rick Danner reads a proclamation recognizing three Gambrell family members retiring as volunteer firemen. Danny, center, and Gerald Gambrell attended the city council meeting.


Forty years ago Danny Gambrell rushed into burning buildings with a wet cloth covering his nose and mouth, while he listened for sounds of life. His eyes burned from the fire's smoke.

It was how his father, Ralph, and uncle, Jack, taught him. It was a way of life for the Gambrell men as volunteer firemen with the Greer Fire Department for an aggregate of 176 years. "You follow by example what you wanted to do," Danny said. "Your pay was people telling you 'thank you.'"

The end of that line came last month when the Gambrells retired. The City of Greer commended Danny, David and Gerald with a certificate of appreciation and gift. The fire department presented the brothers with commemorative axes.

The lineage works out this way:

Danny, 40 years

Ralph, father, 30 years

David, brother, 25 years

Jack, uncle, 25 years

Steve, brother, 25 years

Gerald, brother, 31 years

"Dad (Ralph) got involved in everything – Jaycees, Civil Defense, and he built the dugouts for the Ted Lindsey fields (Century fields). We just followed his lead," Danny said. "We didn't do it for the money."

In fact, Danny said working full-time for the fire department didn't fit his lifestyle. "I was offered to join full-time in 1974 but declined because of the pay and it was interfering with my social life," he said as he laughed.

Danny said there it was a thrill responding to fires and rescuing people and saving their homes. "For dad and us it was like an adventure. Firemen don't know what we're going to get.

"It's a rush. You helped save lives, save a building from being destroyed. We didn't think about leaving our family behind," Danny said.

"They (Gambrells) had a true love for what they did," said Greer Fire Chief Chris Harvey. "What was significant was the whole family was involved."

The emptiest feeling Danny said he vividly remembers was the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "I went to the fire department to be with them. To see their reaction when the second building collapse, realizing it could have been us in another way, was an empty feeling."

The best memories Danny recalls was saving structures and helping families. "It was the best thing to be doing those things side by side, together with my family."

The closest call Danny remembered was in the 1970s when Lyman Mill was engulfed in fire. "I was manning a deluge gun (similar to a water cannon). The mill had block walls and a sound caught my ears that was a little different than I would expect. I thought I should back up to get a little more distance between the fire and me. Shortly after the walls collapsed and would have fallen on me if I hadn't moved."

That overshadowed the time Danny fell through a roof and instinctively threw out his arms where the rafters caught him. Another time his mother recognized a fire that was getting out of control raging behind false walls and ceilings. "My mother yelled, 'Get off the roof now.' That bothered me because when I had something to do, I did it." Danny said he asked his dad to keep his mother home from fires after that.

The Gambrells are all graduates of Greer High School and were athletic standouts.

Danny said smoke detectors and fire suppression systems "have saved a lot of lives. Fire doubles every minute and the response time is critical."

Harvey reported that the Greer Fire Department's average response time in 2012, the latest statistics were available, was 4.58 minutes – down 36 seconds from 2010.

Equipment and fire safety has come a long way since Danny reported to scenes with an ax, flashlight, boots and cloth to shield his face from the smoke.

"We didn't have any breathing apparatus back then," Danny said. "We would break out a window and stick a nozzle in."

Firemen today have the best equipment, vehicles, radios, a mask that is equipped to give readings of how much air is left, fireproof clothing and technology to determine the hot spots and other warnings.

"The volunteers had to keep up with the training requirements and equipment to keep up to date," Harvey said. "There have been so many changes since the Gambrells have been volunteers."

Volunteers are required to pass an annual physical, be tested for blood borne pathogens and receive CPR recertification every three years.

Harvey said volunteers help significantly when the department faces shortages of staff for time off.

Calls to bring down kids and animals in trees were some of the more pleasurable tasks Danny remembered. "To see the joy in kids is hard to beat."

Volunteering at the fire department was a calling Danny said his family embraced. "We never wanted anything in return. We just wanted to help our neighbors and the community. We were always proud that while people would be running out of buildings for safety, (firemen) would be seen running in." 




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