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MFR Fire Chief recalls riding out Hurricane Hugo

Every year when hurricane season arrives, Midway Fire Rescue Chief Doug Eggiman knows he may have to make one of the hardest decisions of his life: evacuate the fire stations, or stay put.

“It’s one of the decisions I dread the most every season,” Eggiman said.

The chief was just a firefighter/paramedic when Hurricane Hugo devastated the area 25 years ago, in September 1989.

Midway’s chief at the time, Mike Mock, called in all personnel to ride out the storm at the headquarters station in Litchfield.

It was a “packed house,” Eggiman said, with people occupying every bunk and sleeping on floors.

Before sundown, firefighters passed the time by taking bets on whether a single pine tree behind the station was going to snap. Although the wind bent it to the ground, the tree did not break.

Waccamaw Hospital had not been built yet, so Georgetown Hospital sent an emergency room doctor with a bunch of equipment to Midway in case the bridges became impassable.

Eggiman recalls the wind “howling,” and a person arriving at the station with chest pains. The doctor determined the person was not having a heart attack and Eggiman put his paramedic skills to use.

“I stayed up most of the night being with the patient just sort of monitoring until daybreak,” he said.

Midway personnel stayed on duty for seven or eight days straight.

The department also became a makeshift food station, with people who had lost power dropping off frozen food before it spoiled.

“I remember steak and eggs for breakfast, and steak and seafood for lunch, and steak and seafood for dinner,” Eggiman said.

When the sun came up, Midway personnel discovered that the only damage to the station was a few missing shingles, one of which sliced through a car windshield in the parking lot.

“It was amazing to see,” Eggiman said. “It really kind of drove it home at what force the shingles must have been coming off to do that.”

(The headquarters station was remodeled in 2007 and during that process it was discovered that the station was not built to hurricane specifications.)

Eggiman headed over to Pawleys Island to see the damage Hugo had left in its wake. What he found was houses destroyed, houses missing sides, houses in the creek, houses moved a block away from the original foundations, and a swath of water that cut through the beach near the Bird’s Nest section of the island.

“It was pretty incredible,” Eggiman said. “An incredible testimony to nature.”

Many of the houses that were displaced could not be salvaged and were eventually burned where they had landed.

Eggiman also checked on his own house. Newlyweds for four months, the Eggimans had just bought their house near the South Causeway.

“I thought, great we just bought a house and we’re going to lose it,” he said.

The damage to the Eggiman house was minimal.

The area recovered, and Eggiman said Mock later admitted that Midway personnel probably should have evacuated.

“It was definitely an incredible experience,” Eggiman said.

All Midway’s stations now have hurricane resistant windows, doors and bay doors, which were paid for by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We feel pretty confident in here,” Eggiman said.

Now that Eggiman is chief, it’s his responsibility to decide to evacuate or not. He said he has to weigh protecting the public with protecting his personnel, station and equipment. Garden City lost a station and its equipment during Hugo.

During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Midway personnel evacuated inland on Highway 707 for about 12 hours, Eggiman said.

Eggiman advises residents to be prepared, and don’t hesitate to evacuate. Better safe than sorry.

“We’ve been very, very blessed since Hugo. We’ve dodged so many bullets,” Eggiman said. “We’re long overdue. We always tell people it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

An aerial video of Hurricane Hugo’s destruction in DeBordieu and Pawleys Island can be found on YouTube.

Article by By Chris Sokoloski

South Strand News

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