By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
There weren’t 5,000 people there, and there was lots more food than five barley loaves and two fishes. But a collaborative effort between a wide range of diverse churches to honor current and former first responders had some similarities to the miracle performed by Christ and reported in all four Gospels.
The event, titled “First Responders, Our Amazing Heroes,” took place Saturday, June 9, at Atmore First Assembly Prayer Park, just off South Main Street. It was designed to honor those who put their lives on the line for others as part of their daily jobs, and it accomplished that goal.
“This is really nice, and the food is great,” agreed Poarch police officers Lucas Gibson and Ricky Page as they prepared to go back on duty with plates full of food and cups of ice cream.
Attendance by noon was well below the anticipated 450 or so guests expected by the 40-something volunteers who cooked mounds of Boston butts, grilled chicken, sausage, hamburgers, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, slaw, beans and more for the first responders. It took two tables just to hold the array of cakes, pies, puddings and other desserts that were prepared, and still another for a choice of homemade or store-bought ice cream.
But, as Ronnie Harrison, who lives “just across the Florida line” from Atmore, pointed out, Escambia County Sheriff’s Office personnel were tied up with a murder in Huxford, Atmore firefighters were transferring books from an overturned moving van, ambulance crews were scattered around the city, and several city police officers were tied up on Main Street, where a sinkhole had developed.
“We’re honoring them for the jobs they do, and their jobs are keeping them from being able to get here,” Harrison said. “The murder, the wrecks and all that took probably a couple of hundred people from us today. But I believe that everyone is here that God wanted here.”
Officers from 13 different public safety agencies within Escambia County, Ala., attended or were invited to attend the gathering, along with those from Escambia County (Fla.) Fire & Rescue’s Walnut Hill station. There were plenty of firefighters — volunteer and paid — as well as police officers, sheriff’s deputies, paramedics, EMTs, at least one FBI agent and others.
Harris expressed amazement at how well and how quickly things came together to make the special day of celebration and appreciation possible.
“This isn’t about any individual,” he said. “This is about several churches — black, white, the Indians — coming together because they wanted to do this for these people, who don’t get nearly the recognition they need. It’s like everybody was just sitting there, waiting on somebody to come by and say, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ When it’s about service to families, folks get on board.”
Feeding the families of first responders was a key component of the large-scale cookout, and most wives, husbands and children seemed to appreciate the gesture.
“It’s really nice to have something like this to honor them, especially the retired honorees,” said Meagan Stewart, wife of AFD Capt. Zack Stewart. “We haven’t seen some of them in a while, and it’s nice to be able to get together with everybody.”
The 13 honorees — retired, near retirement and deceased — to which she alluded represented collectively more than 400 years of service. Each was given a certificate of appreciation and a Boston butt during a special presentation.
Those so honored were: Charles “Charlie” Rutherford; Jimmy D. Davis; Jimmy Douglas Davis; Brian Davis; Ronald Wayne Albritton; Gerry Wayne McGhee; Robert L. Stewart; Louis English Jr.; Jason Corey Dean; Mike Staples; Dale Rutherford; Mike Respress, and H. Julian Johnson.
And, also in line with the Biblical account, those who organized the event vowed that they would “let nothing be wasted.” Volunteers brought numerous containers so that food could be sent to those who were unable to come because of their commitments to the community.
“We’re going to stay here until all of them are able to come, or it storms,” Harrison said as rain clouds gathered over the city. “The ladies are going to fix plates to take to those who couldn’t make it. All this food was for the first responders, and all of it will go to the first responders.”
Atmore Fire Chief Ron Peebles, who was finally able to make it to the park around 2:30 p.m. after four hours of loading and unloading boxes of books, summed up the feelings of most who partook of the feast and the related ceremony.
“What they did was outstanding,” a weary Peebles said. “And the food, even though it was late and cold, was outstanding. I really appreciate what they did for us.”
News photos by Ditto Gorme