That is how Horseshoe Bend firefighter Al Comen describes the night of Jan. 21, 2009 -- the night the city's fire station burned down, destroying two pumper trucks, hoses, firefighter protective gear, radios and about every thing else needed to operate a volunteer fire department.
More than three years later, Comen is standing in a fire station that is bigger and better than ever, as Horseshoe Bend residents walk through and hear the story of how far the department has come. The only sign of the devastating fire is the department's tanker truck, which was saved during the fire, but still bears some scorch marks from the flames.
"We wanted to show the community what progress we've made, and what needs we still must take care of," Fire Chief Mike Hilliker said. Hilliker was grilling hot dogs, just outside the station, on a very hot day, as the department hosted an Aug. 2 open house.
"I remember what a mess it was after the fire," Horseshoe Bend resident Paul Sulser said. "It's very nice now. They've made a lot of improvements. The training room was really needed and is a good addition."
The rebuilt department has been expanded from two bays to three, and the large training room, with a full kitchen and restrooms, was added thanks to a grant and some money a resident left to the department in her will.
"I had never seen the facility. It is just beautiful. You don't really realize what it takes to run a volunteer fire department until you come in and take a look," Steve Smith said, in the crowded training room, a cool place for people to gather to eat hot dogs and visit after touring the garage area, where fire trucks and equipment stand at the ready.
"I am going to be on the committee to raise funds for a pumper truck," Smith said.
After the 2009 fire, the Arkansas Department of Forestry loaned the department an old, 800 gallon pumper truck, so it could provide basic protection. Later, using insurance money, community donations and a loan from the city, the department was able to buy a 1989 model, 1,000 gallon pumper truck and a 2006 brush truck, but it still needs another pumper that can hold more water and pump at a faster rate.
"Brand new pumpers cost at least $300,000, but we can get a good used, 1,500 gallon pumper for about $90,000," Chief Hilliker said. "We have $25,000 in fire department funds, so we need to raise another $65,000."
Smith, who was involved in establishing a Friends of the Library group to raise money for the Horseshoe Bend Library, is confident the public will support the effort to buy a pumper.
"We think this is a good start. Bringing people in to show them all that's been done to recover from the fire, and what it takes to run a department," Smith said.
"People have been very good to support us in the past," Hilliker said. "I don't know how long it will take, but we have some fundraisers planned."
According to Hilliker, a couple of organizations will help the department put on a motorcycle poker run on Sept. 22. Details on that will be released soon.
"I am proud of this department. They have done it on their own," Mayor Bob Barnes said, as he looked around the new facility. "They have a first class department, and are always training and getting involved in community service."
Barnes said residents will support the fund drive if they realize how important a second pumper truck is to keeping fire insurance rates low. While some fire departments have an ISO rating of 9, Horseshoe Bend Volunteer Fire and Rescue has worked its way up to an ISO rating of 6.
"A class 6 rating means the owner of a $50,000 home saves $692 a year on their fire insurance," Barnes said. "We need two good pumpers to keep the class six rating, and hope to work our way up to a class 5 rating, which would cut insurance rates even more."
"Since we got fire fees in 2008, we have tried not to ask the public for donations, but the second pumper is something we really need," Comen said.
Since 2008, Horseshoe Bend homeowners have paid an annual fee of $24 to help finance the department, but the fee has not helped it build up a reserve fund as originally hoped. The fire occurred just six months after the fee went in place, and it has cost the department more than $300,000 to replace equipment, ranging from trucks to hoses to protective gear, lost in the fire.
After applying for more than 50 grants, the department received two grants totalling $139,000. Fire insurance paid $50,000 and the city loaned the department $48,500 to help with the rebuilding process (It later forgave $10,000 of the loan).
Despite that support, the department has spent $44,000 more than it has taken in over the past three years, which is why public support is needed.
Despite all of its trials, the department has 18 dedicated firefighters on its staff. Eight of them are trained as first responders, who assist at accident scenes and operate the department's rescue truck.
"I know a lot of firefighters, and I remember very clearly how bad the fire was," Mike Wittman said, as he toured the department during the open house.
"It looks very nice now," Wittman's wife, Kathleen, added, as they both expressed support for the pumper truck fund- raising campaign.
The fire department has prepared an information sheet which clearly explains its progress since the fire, and its remaining need for a pumper truck. The sheet suggests donation levels ranging from $1,000 to $25, and donations of any amount can be dropped off at City Hall or mailed to the department at 704 West Commerce Street.
The information sheet says, "We are asking our local community to support us by sharing some of your annual homeowner insurance savings provided by your Fire Department, so that we can finally put our Fire Department back to where it was before the fire...Thank you for your continued support."
"There's a lot of people here tonight," Virginia Sulser said at the open house. "There is a lot of interest in helping this department."