‘That kind of a friend’
Dale Wooton was watching TV a couple of weeks ago on Friday morning when he heard a smoke alarm go off inside his Yukon Road rental home.
“I got up and walked back in the hall, and I actually was thinking, ‘There’s something wrong with that smoke alarm, I’m going to have to get a new battery,’” he said. “But then when I pushed the bedroom door open, one front corner was really blazing.
“Like a dummy, I tried putting it out.”
Wooton couldn’t knock down the blaze, and quickly the fire expanded through the opened door.
“It was so smoke-filled and so bad, I tried to go back around the corner and I tripped on the trim around the bottom of the door,” he said. “I was laying in the hallway toward the front room, and it was so hot I got second- and third-degree burns all over my back.”
Fortunately, Wooton, 70, had purchased a hip carrier for his phone.
“I dialed Jerry’s number and told him, ‘The house is on fire – I need help!’”
Jerry Southern, Wooton’s landlord for 10 years who lives nearby, got the call and “just reacted.”
“Dale’s a good friend. He called me and said, ‘Jerry, the house is on fire, and I need help – I can’t get out!’” he echoed. “So I dropped the phone, went out the door, told my wife to call 911, got in my car and went up there.
“It’s probably 400 yards but I couldn’t have run it – it’s uphill all the way. I drove as fast as I could.”
Southern opened the door and was blasted with the acrid smell of “solid black smoke.”
“I said, ‘Dale, where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m in the hall,’ and I knew where he was then. I just crawled back there, feeling, couldn’t see, and I felt his hand. I got ahold of him and started pulling him out,” said Southern, who is also 70. “He was really hard to move. The rug had those ‘no-sliders’ on it because it was a wooden floor. But I got him moving, and I was holding my breath.”
‘Don’t drag me, I’m burnt’
Wooton had extended his right arm instead of his left since he’d just had a pacemaker put in his heart.
“He drug me partway to the door, then he had to go out and get more air,” he said of Southern. “Then he called (my name again) and got ahold of me again and pulled me on out the front door. From there, the firemen helped him get me off the little walkway over onto the grass so the fire wouldn’t get to me there.”
“He said, ‘Don’t drag me on the gravel, I’m burnt,’” Southern recalled. “By that time, the first responders had already got there, and I told them I needed help and I needed an ambulance. My main concern was to get him away from the house, and the paramedics got there and I said, ‘He’s burned.’”
But first, the first responders had to deal with two of man’s best friends who had sprung into duty.
“My little doggie and (Southern’s) little doggie took up stands with their backs against me, sitting one on each side – and they didn’t want anybody coming close,” Wooton recalls. “They wanted to protect me.”
EMTs rolled Wooton over carefully and cut his shirt off, Southern said, and the sickly odor of burned flesh spread through the air.
“You could see the skin had already gone,” Southern said. “If he was in pain, he wasn’t telling me. But he’s tough. He took his keys out of his pocket – and them loading him on the stretcher – and he throwed ’em to me and said, ‘Get my truck out! Get my truck out!’”
Wooton was taken to the North Georgia Medical Center helicopter pad and transported by air ambulance to an Atlanta-area hospital.
“I have second- and third-degree burns all over my back and the back of my arms, second-degree burns on the back of my head where most of us guys start losing our hair when we’re going to lose it, and on my ears,” he said last week. “I have first-degree burns on my face and on a couple of spots on the front of my arms.”
Although he faces skin grafting, he said, “I’m feeling better.”
‘Hero? ... I just reacted’
Is his friend and landlord Jerry Southern a hero?
“I would say yes,” he replied.
Southern was asked the same question.
“Hero? Really, no, I just reacted,” he said. “I knew he would’ve died if I hadn’t pulled him out of that fire. But I don’t feel like a hero.”
“He’s been that kind of a friend for 10 years,” Wooton praised.
Gilmer County Fire/EMA Chief Tony Pritchett commended Southern for “getting to his friend so fast and saving his life by pulling him from the home.”
“(Wooton) is in stable condition and is expected to fully recover from his injuries,” he said.
Pritchett also feels having the Yukon Fire Station reopened – it was closed in 2011 due to budgetary constraints and brought back on line by county commissioners in late 2014 – was crucial in regard to the rental home fire.
“We have a lot of fires in that area of the county, and having a fire station out there that is not manned – especially with a school just down the road (Clear Creek Middle) – it just doesn’t make good sense,” he said. “It really made a difference in this case, absolutely, helping get (Wooton) in the air (to the hospital) and 100 percent in saving that house.”
Station fully manned now
Pritchett also commended the firemen who responded to the Sept. 23 blaze around mid-morning.
“Firefighters arrived in less than six minutes and found heavy smoke and flames,” he said in a release. “(They) quickly extinguished the fire and were able to keep the majority of the damage to one room, although smoke damage was sustained throughout the home.”
Pritchett said the insurance company will most likely “come in and gut the thing out.”
“They’ll get it back in livable condition pretty easily, I think,” he said last week, adding the fire is still under investigation.
“Yukon Fire Station is manned full time and this attributed to the quick response and treatment of the man and extinguishment of the fire,” Pritchett stated in the release. “I would like to commend the B-Shift firefighters for their quick response to the incident, and for providing excellent patient care and an aggressive fire attack.”