A firefighter's personal fight

Villareal (Dave MacQueen/WCIV)

By Dean

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- For one fireman, survival has been a difficult burden to bare. Chris Villareal fought through dark days and now works to prevent the loss of life when firefighters answer the call.

All gave some, some gave all, and Villareal will never forget.

"We came in the day after Father's Day... It was hot that day... try to lay low as much as possible," Villareal said.

The smallest of details are remembered.

"Gone to buy pork chops to grill that day," Villareal remembered.

The final day, the final moment of each firefighter is etched in Chris Villareal's memory.

"Michel French's daughter gave him an episode of Rescue Me. He was a big fan of Rescue Me. He made us watch that all day long," Villareal said.

"Brandon Thompson was working for a guy that day. Also on Engine 10, we asked Brandon if he wanted to go. He said, 'No, I'll hang back and I'll go to the ladder truck since Nathan will be on 10.' So, we swapped 'em out," Villareal said.

"I called up Mark Kelsey and said, 'Hey look, get those pork chops out. We're going to get the sides for it,'" Villareal said.

But, the pork chops were never grilled, and the meal was never made.

"Right as I hung the phone up, the call went out," said Villareal as he recounted the hours and minutes before the fire.

Life as a fireman for Villareal changed forever.

"The only thing that stood out to me was radio transmission. No one could really talk to anyone. Whenever you tried to talk, someone would cut you off," Villareal said.

But word spread, like the fire that brought down the Sofa Super Store, that three of Villareal's men had lost their lives.

"From my station, the entire ladder company: Mark Kelsey, Brandon Thompson and Michael French," Villareal said.

"It was real solemn type feeling. Nothing like pulling one of your guys out and taking them; and you're talking to them one minute and then you're carrying them out and putting them in the coroner van. It's a feeling that I really don't want to see anyone else go through," Villareal said.

It's the reason why Villareal worked through the pain, dealt with personal setbacks and became a leading voice of change.

"One time I did think about leaving, but the one thing that kept me on the job was the nine guys. There were changes that needed to be made, and if I stayed here, I could be the thorn. It's just to ensure that some of these things could be put into place," Villareal said.

The department has undergone real change in five years and so has Chris Villareal.