On March 16, 2013, Jodi Aldridge and her two children stood with dozens of neighbors in the evening light, watching their Windsor Green community burn to ashes.
The devastating fire that damaged or destroyed 26 buildings in Carolina Forest, including the Aldridge home and claimed the life of the family’s pug puppy, Puck, also left them in awe of the exhausted first responders who battled the raging fire through the night.
Three years to the day after the fire that officials say was caused by an out of control brush fire – on a day the S.C. Fire Commission had issued a red flag weather alert – Aldridge shared how the event changed her life in more ways than one. Today, she is in her second month of training to become a volunteer firefighter with Horry County Fire Rescue’s Station 4 in Forestbrook and for the third year, she is heading a major fundraiser for the Horry County Firefighters Relief Fund.
“If you had told me then that I would be going down this path,” she said in an unfinished but understood sentence. “Life is pretty good. Everyone there [in the Windsor Green community] that I know has picked up and is doing well.”
Remembering that day
Aldridge was at work at Chili’s in Carolina Forest that March day three years ago when the employees began to see smoke coming from the direction of her home. It was about 5 p.m. so she headed out to see what was happening.
“I was in complete shock. I can’t even explain how I felt,” Aldridge said as she recalled those first few hours of the fire. “When the fire first started I went down there and we just stood on that road for hours watching it burn.”
Her family – like dozens of others affected by the raging blaze – was left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The fire was fed by high winds along with low humidity and warm temperatures that made the perfect recipe for a fire.
“We couldn’t go back home for three days,” she said. “When we went to sort through, it was literally a pile of ashes.”
Aldridge said her son, now 11, was fascinated by watching the firefighters work tirelessly battling the blaze.
“It was devastating to watch but at the same time amazing to watch these men and women running in with no fear while we were running out,” she said.
It was devastating to watch but at the same time amazing to watch these men and women running in with no fear while we were running out.
Jodi Aldridge, whose condo was destroyed in the 2013 Windsor Green fire
Ultimately, four responders — one firefighter and three police officers — were taken to the hospital due to the heavy smoke inhalation. By the time the fire was brought under control about 10:30 p.m., an entire community had been destroyed.
Aldridge said she and the others who lost so much in the fire received support from the community. In addition to assistance from nonprofits such as the American Red Cross and the United Way, people filled a warehouse with donated items.
Aldridge chose not to return to live in the Windsor Green area, but rebuilt her family’s life.
“I had renter’s insurance to help me rebuild,” Aldridge said. “It was extraordinary how the community jumped in to help.”
Inspired to join the heroes
Aldridge has spent the past two months enrolled in training to become a volunteer firefighter, joining only one other female at the station in what has traditionally been a male-dominated role.
Calling her a “workaholic,” Fire Station 4 Capt. Pete Grzymalski said Aldridge has the commitment it takes to make it through the training.
At 5-foot-5 and average build, the 38-year-old single mother of two said she had always thought about becoming a volunteer firefighter and is now working out in the gym, running and getting into the right physical shape to ensure she can handle the job. So far, her experiences have reassured her she is following the right path. Her first day on the truck, the crew had to deliver a baby boy as she coached the mom.
“There is a ton of reasons to support these first responders who work 24-hour shifts away from their families to take care and protect us,” Aldridge said. “I don’t think you ever walk in here [the fire station] and know what to expect but that [delivering the baby] was a good day.”
While memories of the devastating fire still affect her family, she is ready to respond to a house fire in her new role. Aldridge said, “Now I’ve got a purpose for going to it. I can try to help someone else.”
Finding ways to give back
Within the year after watching the first responders and how hard they worked, Aldridge knew she wanted to do something to give back.
“I reached out and talked to Capt. [Pete] Grzymalski and he told me about the relief fund,” Aldridge said. “We had been given so much support, I wanted to ask for some of that support be given back.”
We had been given so much support, I wanted to ask for some of that support be given back.
Jodi Aldridge, whose condo was destroyed in the 2013 Windsor Green fire
Aldridge, who now fills the role of area director for the Highland Restaurant Group that owns the Chili’s, found she had a lot of support from the company she has worked with for nine years.
“I was lucky. My franchise is really big on helping people and fundraising, so they told me ‘have at it,’” she said.
Joining forces with the already established Horry County Firefighters Relief Fund efforts, Aldridge established the ‘Give Back Night’ at the Chili’s on Orchard Drive in Carolina Forest. In its first year, the event raised $2,000, and last year that amount doubled when the franchise matched the funds raised.
The event this year includes the restaurant donating 10 percent of dine-in and take out sales to the “local heroes,” close to $4,000 in merchandise baskets for an auction and firefighters providing kids activities, which includes experiencing “a day in the life of a hero.”
The event, which will be from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, provides a way for Aldridge and others to give back to the first responders who risk their lives to help others during disasters like the Windsor Green fire. Aldridge aims to raise $6,000 from Sunday’s event.
Give Back Night to help the Horry County Firefighters Relief Fund will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Chili’s on Orchard Drive in Carolina Forest.
Marie Rimm, president of the 7-year-old relief fund, has seen how important the money is to first responders who need assistance following a life-threatening injury or illness. But this year, she is feeling firsthand what it means to have that support. Her husband, firefighter Billy Rimm of Rescue 2, Station 45, is in the hospital following a sudden, severe heart attack.
“To be on the opposite end of this, I’m just floored,” Marie Rimm said. “People are asking me what I need when I am the one usually asking that question. I walked into the hospital and all the chiefs and officers were there. To have the brotherhood of this organization, where everybody is on a first name basis, it makes you feel really good.”
Rimm said the nonprofit relies on the community for its fundraising and the money stays in Horry County helping first responders and their families in times of need. That assistance comes in the form of gas cards, groceries and in other assistance with hospital stays, etc., but never with cash passing hands.
“Jodi has done a knockout job every year with this fundraiser,” Marie Rimm said.
Fire Station 4 Capt. Grzymalski commends Aldridge for her staunch support of the relief fund but he is also proud to now call her a fire recruit at his station. Grzymalski said a friendship developed between Aldridge and the fire station when she began the Chili’s fundraisers.
“It was a good fit for her wanting to give back to the community and witnessing the outpouring from the community after the fire,” he said. “The relief fund goes above and beyond when a person gets cancer or even to help a firefighter like the one that lived at Windsor Green. The funds help mostly with medical expenses. We have to take care of them, put the family up at MUSC [Medical University of South Carolina] or give rides to chemo treatments. Those extra funds help take care of our own.”
Angela Nicholas can be reached at email@example.com.