An Absolutely True Event
By Ken Frye
January 19th 1985 late night
The snow was deep, 16 inches or more and the cold was cold, minus 10 degrees or more. Logan County West Virginia is located in the southern end of the state and usually gets some cold weather and snow during the winter but this snow and cold was different. This was something that happened every 7 years or so. The county was at a standstill.
I had been on my local volunteer fire department for about 3 years. We had no paid personnel, only about 20 old and young coal miners that tried their best to help protect their community. We depended on large pagers to notify us when we had a fire. I always carried mine everywhere except church. I still do.
The department was one of the smallest in Logan County West Virginia with one 1975 Ford pumper, one 1952 US Army 10 wheel 2000 gallon tanker and one 1951 US Army MASH ambulance that we used for a utility truck. The fire station was located about 400 feet up on a hill beside the Verdunville grade school with a narrow half paved road about a quarter of a mile long and a very narrow 90 degree turn at the very bottom.
My grandfather had been extremely ill for some time and my grandmother was getting weaker and needed rest. Some family members had begun to stay with them at night to give my grandmother relief so she could sleep and keep her strength up. This Saturday night was my turn.
My grandparents only lived about half a mile away from my house so it wasn’t a major inconvenience however my non-four wheel drive was a 1975 Thunderbird which is probably the worst vehicle ever made for snow. Nice in good weather however.
My son Mike, 11 years old at the time, was at a friend’s house staying the night so when I left for my grandparents’ house I left my wife Connie and my daughter Charlie, 14 years old at the time, home alone. Connie had told me that because of the cold she and Charlie would sleep together in Charlie’s bed in the front of the house where it would be warmer. I had just that past summer got a new roof on the house and remodeled the back side where Connie and I slept. I had installed heating ductwork in there but it was still too cold on a night like this.
The left side of the rear of the house was Connie and my bedroom, which I had built from an old storage room. It looked pretty good considering I did most of the work. I did have a lot of help and guidance however.
The right side of the rear of the house was our laundry room, which still needed a lot of work that I had planned on completing that summer. Everything in the house was natural gas, the stove, furnace, water heater and a small old fashion space heater, except the clothes dryer, which was electric.
That little small old fashion space heater I mentioned was in the utility room. There was no ductwork from the furnace leading to that room so it was the only heat in the room. I kept it lit on a small flame to assure that the pipes did not freeze.
I mentioned that this space heater was old didn’t I? It did not have a pilot light on it. I lit it with a match when I needed it. It burned very nice. No smoke or fumes at all and nothing around it to catch fire. It was completely safe.
This particular night Connie decided that she would wash some clothes. She washed them as usual and put them in the electric dryer to dry overnight then she and Charlie crawled into Charlie’s bed for the night.
I don’t know how long they were in the bed or if they were asleep yet but Connie recalls hearing a rather loud pop and almost immediately the house was filling with smoke. When she finally realized that the house was on fire she picked up the dog, grabbed Charlie and a blanket from the bed and went outside, down the driveway and around the fence to our neighbor Gladys Workman’s house where she called the fire department.
I had gotten to my grandparents’ house around 8pm and settled in to watch some TV with my grandmother. She went to bed around 10pm and my grandfather seemed to be doing ok so I expected to get some rest myself sleeping on the couch.
I don’t remember the time but I heard my pager crackle. I brought my pager to listen but I had already decided that I would not run any calls this night due to the situation so I kind of didn’t listen when Chief Ted Hale began to speak and announce where the fire was located. I thought he said, “There is a fire at Jim Spry’s house. All personnel respond”.
Now I knew some Sprys but I wasn’t familiar with Jim so I picked up the pager to listen closer. Then Chief Hale repeated the announcement, “There is a fire at Ken Frye’s house and its real bad. All personnel respond”.
That time I heard him loud and clear. I can’t describe what I felt at that moment. Horror would be a good word to begin and end with. “Oh God no” was all I could say as I grabbed shoes and coat quickly woke my grandmother and told her where I was going then ran for that 75 Thunderbird.
As I jumped in the car I prayed out loud “God save my family”. Then the thought occurred to me that we had a small fire a couple of years earlier in an electrical outlet and maybe that is what it is. As I turned the Thunderbird toward home I could see a faint flicker in the night sky. I knew then it was more than an electrical outlet.
As I neared the house I could see the flicker turn into larger and larger flames. As I got to the front of the house I could see heavy fire coming from the rear of the house and extremely heavy black smoke coming from the eves of the front of the house. I knew the fire truck would be coming if they had no trouble getting the truck off the hill. I remember thinking just then, “I hope someone scraped the road to the fire house or the truck won’t get here”.
I stopped in the road in front of the house and looked for a place to put my car. I wanted to be sure not to block the access for the fire truck if it got there. (Fire training kicking in even while in panic mode). I could find no place that suited me so I pointed that Thunderbird directly at a large pile of snow in the front yard of the house that was abandoned across the street. I slammed it into the snow trying to get it in far enough to get it completely out of the way. I put it in so far I had trouble getting the door open to get out.
I got out of the car and ran to the middle of the front yard and stopped. The fire had grown and the smoke had gotten heavier coming from the front of the house. My fire training was telling me that my family was already dead. They could not have survived one minute in that heavy smoke. My heart was telling me that I needed to get the bodies out before the fire got to them. When the fire truck got there it would have an air pack for that purpose.
I decided immediately that I could not wait on the fire truck. The flames were getting larger and closer to the front of the house. I ran up on to the porch and stopped. I thought, “Get your plan together before you open the door. Your chance of surviving here is about 1% so get your plan together”. I reasoned that because my son would be sleeping in the middle bedroom that I would go for him first, then go back and get Connie and Charlie in the front bedroom, which was right beside the front door. That way if I did survive at least I could bury their unburned bodies. If I didn’t survive we would all go together.
I reached for the doorknob and just as my hand touched the knob I heard a man’s voice shout, “What are you doing?” I turned around and saw a man standing in my front yard. He was standing beside a Jeep and the Jeep was in the middle of my yard right where I had stopped before. I thought “Did I run right by him and didn’t see him?”
I yelled back “I’m going after my family”. He said, “Their not in there. They’re next door”. I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yes I saw them go in”. I said, “All of them?” and he said, “Yes, all of them”. I didn’t catch it at the time but later I thought, “How did he know how many was all? He didn’t know how many kids I had.”
I immediately ran off the porch, through the snow, jumped the fence and ran into Gladys’ house where I saw Connie, Gladys and Charlie hysterically crying on the couch. I did not see Mike. I tried to contain myself and asked to anyone “Where is Mike?” I got no answer. I asked again a little louder this time “Where is Mike?” Again, no answer. This time I bypassed all volume control and went immediately to super scream level, “Where is Michael?” Charlie finally realized what I was asking and answered almost as loud as I was, “He is at Brad’s house”. Then it hit me, “that’s right, Mike is staying overnight with his best friend Brad.
Finally relief. My family is alive and safe. At that moment I knew I was losing all my possessions but it didn’t matter. I could have shouted to God for answering my prayer and I should have. I failed to give Him the praise. At the same time He answered probably the smallest (4 words “God, save my family”) and the biggest prayer I would ever pray in my life, I failed Him.
Ok, now I can concentrate on fighting the fire. I ran back outside, jumped over the fence and went around the house. My fire training kicking in again. I made a 360. I could see that the entire structure was a total loss. The fire had made its way about half way from the rear to the front taking that brand new roof as it went. As I came back around to the front the man with the jeep came up to me and said, “How can I help you?” I looked and saw that my boat was sitting beside the house within 4 feet of the wall and not only would it burn but it would be in the way when the fire truck finally arrived.
I knew that boat had been sitting in the same place for 2 years and it was frozen to the ground and there was 16 inches of frozen snow on it and around it. It would take four or five guys to drag it out of the way so I told him “Well I need to get that boat out of the way but there is no way you and I can move it by ourselves unless you have a 1 7/8” trailer hitch ball on your jeep. He said, “I don’t have a hitch at all but we can try to move it ourselves”.
So we picked up the front of the trailer, which seemed very easy, pushed it to the right then to the left and began to pull. He and I pulled that snow bound boat a good 75 feet out into the yard away from the fire and out of the way of the fire truck as easy as pulling a little red wagon on a summer day. I was shocked.
At that moment I realized there was nothing else I could do until the fire truck arrived. I told the man I was going back inside to check on my family and I thanked him for his kindness and help. He said “I just wish I could do more for you tonight brother”. I said, “You’ve done more than most” and I went inside.
I wasn’t inside long when I heard the fire truck pull up. The guys immediately began pulling hoses and putting what water they had on the truck on the fire. They had to set a pump in the creek for water because there were no hydrants available in that area at that time. (Some time later they installed a hydrant right on the corner of that lot)
While awaiting the water from the creek to begin to flow to the truck, I stood by Chief Ted Hale, a man that I had known and loved all my life one of many fathers to me and Assistant Chief Max Skeens a man I had grown up with and loved like a brother, I finally broke down. The tears would not stop. As they held me up I knew that it was my turn to receive help from my brothers like I had helped others in the past.
My moment didn’t last long however, word came quickly that the pump was running but no water was being pumped. I was the only available firefighter to check it out. I wiped my tears and ran to the creek. I saw the problem immediately. Someone had put the suction hose on the outlet side of the pump. I quickly switched it and water began to flow. I spent the rest of the night running nozzles into Gladys’ house and running hot water through them to thaw them out.
A couple of days later as I walked around inside the burned out shell that used to be my residence trying to salvage what I could I was in Charlie’s bedroom in the front of the house. I was walking on about 18 inches of ice that had frozen as the fire hoses shot water in the structure. Charlie’s bedroom door was opened and I just happened to think to look behind it. I peeked and saw my Fender 12 string guitar in its case with my London Fog winter raincoat thrown over it. The coat was thrown over the guitar case because the Sunday before, after church, the closet was full and I had no other place to put my coat. I knew the guitar would be ruined but I took my time and chipped the ice away until I freed it. It was the only thing of value I saved. It never had a scratch or stain and not a drop of water had touched it. Even the case was not harmed and it is made out of cardboard. I still have that old Fender that I bought in 1976 and it still plays like a new one. It has played many times in church before and since that night. That is a God thing.
This was a night that I’ll never forget, obviously, however many little things occurred that night that when talking about it many times after seemed odd or unexplainable. Not only was the guitar a God thing but several other things as well. If I had not gone to my grandparents’ that night Connie and I both may have been killed because we slept right across the hall from the utility room where the fire started. If Connie had not slept with Charlie she may have been killed. I could go on but I won’t.
On another day I was walking around the burned out house with the insurance man. After he asked me a few questions about the house he said to me, “That old space heater in the utility room was what burned your house”. I told him that nothing was around it to catch fire and I had the flame very low. He said that was part of the reason it happened. The cold weather had partially frozen the gas meter, which had reduced the gas enough to put out the flame. I knew this to be very possible because that very thing happened a few years prior. Because there was no pilot light to shut down the flow of gas to the space heater, the small amount of gas seeping in the room finally became enough to be ignited by the electric dryer that was running just 4 feet away.
I included this part of the story just to show the many circumstances that had to be in place and the events that needed to happen and the actions that Connie and I did to deal with the events and circumstances thinking all the time we were doing things safely and correctly. God’s plan was to be completed and regardless of what we did to prevent it, the plan was completed.
Sometime later Connie asked me how I knew to come to Gladys’ house that night before going to the house. I told her that I did go to the house first but that the man in the jeep told me that she and Charlie were there. Her reaction was, “What man in a jeep?” I said, “The man that had parked his jeep in the yard. You had to go right by him because you didn’t jump the fence you went around it.” She said, “Yes we went around the fence but there was no jeep in the yard”. I questioned Charlie about it and she confirmed there was no jeep anywhere.
This prompted other questions like, (1) what was this man doing out at midnight or later by himself on the worst night in seven years anyway? There was nothing open. No stores, bars, or anything. (2) I knew at least half the people around that area personally and the other half I had seen before enough to nod or wave in passing. I had never seen this man or his jeep before in my life. (3) How did I get passed him without seeing him that night when I first arrived? Remember, I looked all over for a place to park my car and then I stood almost in the same spot his jeep was parked for at least 30 seconds and didn’t see him or the jeep. (4) Even if he had seen Connie and Charlie going into Gladys’ house without them seeing him, how did he know that there was no one else in the house? (5) That boat was way to easy to move with just him and I. I even had some of the firefighters ask me how I moved it and they said the same thing. “How did just the 2 of you move it through all this snow?” (6) The jeep and man were gone when the fire truck arrived. You would think that he would have stayed around to watch the firefighters work or offer to help.
Twenty-five years later as I write this I truly know the answer. God’s plan was in jeopardy. He had planned for my family to move to South Carolina. There was a work for us to do. My son needed to meet one particular girl. A church plant needed to be started. The house burning was part of the plan but my death was not. Had I opened that door only 2 or 3 seconds before that man yelled at me, “What are you doing”? I would have died right there. God, through the man in the jeep, saved my life that night. Or was he a man? I will always believe that God sent one of His Divine creatures to Mud Fork, West Virginia on one of the worst weather nights on record and the worst night on record in the life of the Ken Frye family to save my life.
Yes I believe he was a real God sent angel. Yes I know this sounds like “It’s a Wonderful Life” but that doesn’t change the fact that angels do exist for real and they do perform such duties. I didn’t hear a bell ring but I truly believe that angel earned his wings that night. I’ve thanked God many times for that miracle and I plan on thanking the jeep-driving angel when I see him again. I’m also going to get him a trailer hitch for his Jeep.
Ken Frye is now retired from the North Myrtle Beach Fire Department and resides in Little River SC.