Shirley Assistant Chief Looks Back
When you do something for 50 years, something like firefighting, you are bound to have some stories that would frighten even the bravest of men and women. You also see changes in the profession, hopefully more good than bad.
November 18, 1975 is a day forever engraved in the memory of assistant Shirley Fire Chief Mitch Wilcox. That is because it is the day a gas tanker crashed between Middlebourne and Sistersville on twisty route 18. Mitch was driving the Middlebourne fire truck that day and responded with his department to the crash site. It had already been determined the driver of the rig who was trapped inside had perished, but after they had been battling the fire for awhile, the president of the fire department, Howard Yost, went down to see if there was anything he could do to assist the situation, like cutting the battery cables. While Yost was investigating, the gasoline rig exploded, taking the life of the fire president immediately. As a young firefighter of 18 years witnessing that disaster, although traumatic, reinforced Mitch’s desire to continue in the profession.
Another memory that he carries is the second downtown Sistersville fire. Mitch, his brother and son were buying a battery in Friendly, when they saw the smoke in the sky. Mitch immediately drove toward the fire and found then Sistersville Fire Chief Jack Bowen on the scene, distressed. Chief Bowen had called the Paden City Fire Department to assist, but had just learned the fire engine had crashed shortly before entering town. Mitch offered his assistance, and together they were able to contact other departments in the area to come and aide. Mitch remembered The Tyler Star News had done a special edition on the fire, and his picture at the fire was big and large on one of the pages.
Fortunately, most fire calls are not as graphic or tragic as the two mentioned above. Yet every time the call goes out, and a firefighter responds, they take the chance that they will be placing their own life on the line for their community.
Meet Assistant Shirley Fire Chief Mitch Wilcox, a veteran firefighter for over 50 years. He was born in New Martinsville in 1956 to the late Emory Jack and Betty Wilcox. Mitch has been married to Sandy Wilcox, who he met while she was visiting her aunt and uncle in the region many years ago; they are celebrating 47 years of marriage. They have three children together: Tammy, Jordan and Chris. He began his career in April of 1971 as a junior firefighter in the Middlebourne Fire Department. He is also a member in the Shirley Fire Department, serving as their assistant chief, and a member in Alma’s Fire Department, serving on their board of directors.
I questioned Mitch about the changes he has seen in the departments over the years. He assured me the largest and best change is the fire levy. Without those funds, local departments would not be able to have the equipment to battle fires. Before the levy, trucks were old and worn out; today, some trucks are still old but they are well maintained. The hardest battle in the department is finding volunteers. Mitch said young people today for whatever reason are not as interested as he was as a young man. That is a problem all departments are facing. It is hard to understand for most veteran firefighters, and it gives them great concern. Fighting fires is a business for those that are young and strong.
Mitch, former Director of Emergency Services of Tyler County and former Assistant Chief at Momentive, is retired now, but stays busy as the shop manager at Jackson’s Auto Repair in Tyler City.
While we were talking, we realized we had a Union Carbide connection through my parents, and that led to a discussion about family. Something Mitch said rang true not only for him, but for every fire fighter I’ve had the pleasure to interview. “The grandkids are the most important thing,” shared Mitch. And he is right. It is the children that we love and protect that make men and women today continue to risk their own lives to protect the communities they live in. If just one young person would visit their local department and consider joining, then these stories that have tried to shine a light on the vital services our local firefighters provide have done their job.