PRATT, W.Va. — It hasn’t been an easy year in the small eastern Kanawha County community of Pratt. A year ago Sunday, the evening of March 24, 2018, the heart of the community, the Pratt Volunteer Fire Department, suffered an unspeakable tragedy when its pumper truck wrecked on its way to a crash on the West Virginia Turnpike.
It’s a run the department had made countless times but this time the truck got into a ditch on Paint Creek Road near Lower Patch Gallagher and couldn’t get out. The truck kept slamming against the jagged hillside. When the truck finally stopped, after 100 feet, two firefighters were dead and three were injured.
The wreck claimed the lives of Assistant Chief Mike Edwards, 46, and Lt. Tom Craigo, 40, both of Hansford. Chief Timmy Walker and firefighters Billy Hypes and Kyle Jenkins were injured.
March 24, 2018, was a Saturday night and the events of that run came flooding back into the mind of current Pratt VFD Captain Rod Johnson this Saturday night.
“Yesterday was the hardest day,” Johnson, who was deputy chief at the time the crash, told MetroNews Sunday. “I was up at the church in Handley, just like I was last year, and as I headed down the road the thought came back into my mind. It just all flashed back.”
As the highest ranking officer at the time, it was Johnson who was making comments on behalf of the department after the crash. He said he still remembers the sadness that came as a result of the tragedy.
“It affected so many people and so many first responders,” he said. “It didn’t make any difference if you responded to the call or not.”
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said the county’s role from the beginning was to provide support for the department and the community.
“We weren’t there to second-guess,” Carper said Sunday on his way to a dinner and memorial service to mark the one-year anniversary of the crash. “We were there to provide support and the ability for the department to move forward.”
As what seems is often the case with tragedy, something positive occurs. At Pratt, the pain remains but out of that pain a stronger department has emerged.
There were just 10 members at the time of the wreck and now that’s grown to more than two dozen.
“A lot of former members came back,” Johnson said. “They wanted to help out.”
There are also a number of first-time firefighters. Johnson said they’ve been busy with training sessions.
Johnson, who became chief for Walker after the wreck, stayed in the position for a couple of months and then turned it over to Bobby Shanklin. Johnson said he thought a fresh start would be best. He’s now a lower ranking officer but still very much involved.
The department has three new vehicles including one to replace the wrecked vehicle. The Pratt VFD is also better off financially than it was before the crash.
“We’ve tried to put some money back into the department,” Johnson said.
The community support and the support from the Kanawha County first responder family has been strong during the past year and that was on display once again Sunday night, a year after the tragedy. Many attended the candlelight vigil/memorial service.
The direct victims of the tragedy have also remained active. Former chief Walker continues his recovery. The other two injured members have recovered, one of them has become a member of the Kanawha County Ambulance Authority.
Edwards’ mother and widow are members of the department’s women’s auxiliary.
Johnson said Edwards and Craigo are sorely missed but the department and community are moving forward.
“We have the community’s support. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.