Four Firefighters and a Woman Named Sue

By:  Robert Avsec

Taking a short break from the normal genre of blog postings here on Talking “Shop” 4 Fire and EMS, I’d like to share a story of perseverance of the human spirit that also includes another example of why firefighters “rock!”  I hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, August 17, 2013WV Firemans Association Logo

Last night I had the honor of accompanying my sister-in-law, Sue Bonham, to the West Virginia Fireman’s Association Annual Conference at Canaan Valley Resort and Convention Center located just outside of Davis, WV.  Sue was there to make a “surprise” appearance as four of her “angels in the garden” were honored by their peers.

Gas Line Explosion

Fire plume from natural gas pipeline rupture engulfs both northbound and southbound lanes of I-77 at Sissonville, WV (Approx. 15 miles NW of Charleston, WV).

You see, back on December 11, 2012 my SIL came as close to


In addition to the structural destruction, the fire plume extended across all four lanes of Interstate 77. The fire incinerated 800 feet of the road surface in both the northbound and southbound lanes of I-77.

“buying the farm” as one can without actually writing a check to the bank.  That afternoon a

20” natural gas pipeline ruptured at a spot about 300 yards from the front door of the home owned by Sue and her husband, Paul Bonham (Paul retired as a firefighter who successfully completed his career with the Charleston (WV) Fire Department).  The ensuing fire ball and sustained flame from the rupture would incinerate two nearby homes and cause significant thermal damage to the exterior of several more homes—including Sue’s and Paul’s—in the immediate area.

House adjacent to blast site that was destroyed by explosion and fire plume.

House adjacent to blast site that was destroyed by explosion and fire plume.

Sue was at home and speaking with a lady at a local appliance store about making an appointment to get her dishwasher repaired when the explosion happened.  Initially, she thought it was an earthquake, especially when sections of the ceiling began falling in her kitchen.  Her first thought was to get out of the house, but when she exited through the back door (opposite the pipeline rupture) she was initially driven back by the intense heat.  The lady on the phone, Trudy, kept the line open as Sue considered her next move.

Slide2Caught between “a rock and a hard place”—if she stayed in the house it was likely going to catch fire and if she exited she might die from the radiant heat of the burning gas plume—she chose to make an attempt to reach the in-ground swimming pool in their backyard.  When she found her path to the pool blocked by even more intense heat she was forced to seek refuge in the back corner of her backyard.  (Good fortune for her because it was later determined that the fire had raised the temperature of the water in the pool to, shall we say, that which is not compatible with life).

Sue made her "stand" behind the swing in corner to the left in photo. In foreground is one of her metal "angels in the garden."

Sue made her “stand” behind the swing in corner to the left in photo. In foreground is one of her metal “angels in the garden.”

Through all of this, Trudy was steadfast in staying on the phone as Sue’s “lifeline” while one of her co-workers called Kanawha County 911 to report Sue’s predicament and her location in the backyard.  As she attempted to use landscaping bricks to construct some sort of wall to shield her from the radiant heat, she looked around her landscaped backyard and saw her “angels in the garden”: several metal silhouettes of angels each of which stood about five feet tall.  As she told me while we were driving up to Canaan Valley:

I had pretty much resigned myself that I was going to die right there in my backyard.  I looked at my angels and said to myself, whether I die, or I get out of here somehow, I’m in your hands.ACS Relay for Life Logo

(Sue is also a 10+ year breast cancer survivor who’s been a driving force leading the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay for Life event in Sissonville—where she and Paul live.  One year a local man constructed the angel silhouettes for that year’s relay and afterwards Paul obtained them for Sue).

Sue (R) the next day with one of her "angels", Trudy (L) and Dave (C) of Lee's Appliances in Nitro, WV

Sue (R) the next day with one of her “angels”, Trudy (L) and Dave (C) of Jeff’s Appliances in Nitro, WV

Her “other” angel, Trudy assured Sue that help was on the way, though both later admitted that they didn’t think it would arrive in time.  Meanwhile, members of the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department were already racing to the scene after having been dispatched to a reported gas line explosion and fire with a woman trapped in her backyard.  “Chuck” Carney, Scott Holmes, Eddie Elmore, and Drew Foutty were on the first responding Sissonville unit and when they got there they, too, encountered the intense heat and deafening sound of the uncontrolled pipeline rupture.

As they painstakingly made their way to Sue’s reported location (as

Destroyed home of Sue & Paul Bonham's next-door neighbors.

Destroyed home of Sue & Paul Bonham’s next-door neighbors.

being conveyed to them from Trudy and her colleagues at the appliance store by the Kanawha County 911 staff) using structures and a privacy fence as shields against the radiant heat, the firefighters were told that Sue had tossed her purse over the privacy fence to aid them in locating her.  Miraculously, they located the purse and…the rest is history (you can tell how the story ended because this is a blog post and not someone’s obituary, right?).

As the saying goes, “All’s well that ends well,” and this story finally came to its rightful conclusion at this conference in the beautiful mountains of West Virginia.  Here Sue had the opportunity—through an invitation from the Awards Committee of the WV Fireman’s Association—to attend the event where Carney, Elmore, Foutty, and Holmes were honored by their peers for their heroic actions.

(L-R) Eddie Elmore, Sue Bonham, Scott Holmes, and "Chuck" Carney (Absent Drew Foutty).

(L-R) Eddie Elmore, Sue Bonham, Scott Holmes, and “Chuck” Carney (Absent Drew Foutty).


As each of my fire service brothers went up to the front of the room to receive their award plaque—along with a big hug—from Sue, words cannot adequately describe seeing the genuine bond that had been forged between those rescuers and their “rescuee” by this catastrophic event. Let me rephrase that, for the rescuee (Sue) to be a part of the recognition ceremony for her “angels in the garden.”

Does it get any better than that?


Check out the Sissonville (WV) Volunteer Fire Department Facebook Page!

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].