Now&Then: Saving lives was just something Ron Hoodenpyl had to do
"You have to do this. You have to," Ron Hoodenpyl told himself as he prepared to crawl back into the smoldering house.
By now Ron's clothes, the clothes he put on that morning to drive a school bus, were soaking wet from the spray of fire hoses. He still was choking on soot from the first time he entered this modest wood-frame house a few minutes earlier, searching desperately in the blinding smoke and heat for a young mother and her infant daughter.
By now Ron Hoodenpyl, the 30-year-old volunteer chief of the Gaston Fire Department, knew that neither had made it out of the house alive. He didn't know yet that the young woman also was pregnant with her second child.
By now the adrenaline that had propelled him to race into a burning building to save two innocent lives had worn off, replaced by the nearly crippling grief he felt for the young husband and father who had left for work less than an hour earlier, not knowing that he would never see his wife and child again.
He didn't know them, but he knew that he had to go back in to recover the bodies. He had to, for reasons even he didn't fully understand. He didn't have to do it to impress his 8-year-old son, Chip, who was sitting wide-eyed in the family sedan watching this tragedy unfold. Chip already knew that his father was a hero. He didn't have to do it because it was his job, because he already had two paying jobs: driving a school bus and operating the local service station.
On that foggy morning of November 21, 1962, Ron Hoodenpyl knew, as he steeled himself to go back into the house, that there were bodies inside. Hoodenpyl felt he had to go back into the house, and he did. This time he found the bodies quickly; in fact, they were in plain sight, at least now that the miasma of smoke and toxic fumes had begun to disperse.
Fact is, not one of the countless people who risk their lives as volunteers in Gaston or other small towns is required to do so. Maybe they agree with longtime volunteer Lorne Vaught, an engineer in the high-tech industry. "If I didn't go, sometimes no one would," he said in 2013, 100 years after Gaston Fire was founded and more than 50 years after Ron Hoodenpyl agonized over retrieving a child's body. "Someone out there needs our help. Sometimes it is nothing big, but sometimes it is life or death."
That same year, Ron Hoodenpyl said he couldn't even guess how many times he responded to life or death calls in his half century as a firefighter. "I just did what I had to do."
This column is condensed from Ken and Kris Bilderback's book, "Fire in a Small Town," a history of local firefighting. The Bilderbacks are residents of Gaston.
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