COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Family, friends and firefighters from all over South Carolina gathered Wednesday to celebrate firefighter Chance Zobel's life.
Zobel was killed while putting out a grass fire Saturday. Troopers say he was hit by an out of control car in the median on Interstate 20 near Clemson Road.
Firefighter Larry Irvin, 30, was also injured in the accident. Irvin remains in the hospital in critical, but stable condition.
A public memorial for the 23-year-old was held Wednesday afternoon at Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia, followed by a burial service in Irmo.
A visibly shaken and upset Interim Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins spoke to the media before the memorial.
"I speak for all of the Columbia-Richland Fire Service today, when I say our hearts are heavy today, but also proud," said Jenkins. "We're proud that we knew Chance Zobel, proud that we worked alongside him and our world has been made better because of him."
Jenkins said the last few days have been tough on his department. "While we do weep, we take confidence knowing that Chance Zobel was a great person," said Jenkins. "Words cannot describe just how good of a person Chance Zobel was."
Inside the church, the 3,000 seat sanctuary was almost full. Nearly half the crowd was made up of uniformed personnel. The church pastor ,referring to Zobel's short life and career said, "He was a hero before last Saturday."
The fallen firefighter was remembered as a son, a brother, a fiance, a friend and a public servant during the service. Zobel, just nine months into his dream job when he was killed, was due to be married to his fiance in April.
After the memorial service, a fire truck carrying Zobel's body made the approximately 20-mile trip from downtown Columbia to Irmo. Firefighters from all over the state and perfect strangers lined the streets to pay tribute to Zobel.
Along the way, there were many salutes and more than just a few tears. Karen Cartrett's brother is a firefighter. She walked out of work to pay tribute to Zobel. "I just got up and told my co-workers I needed to go do this," said Cartrett." I got up, they respected me and came out here to stand on the street."
Chance Zobel's final stop was the church where he was a member, in the cemetery next to the Shady Grove United Methodist Church.
"Don't take anybody for granted, even the littlest people in your life," said Jacob Hunke. "Don't take a second away from them. Don't take them for granted because I never got a chance to say goodbye, and that's just the worst part."
Hunke is still struggling with the death of his friend. "It was losing someone you shouldn't have lost," Hunke said, gathering his thoughts through his grief. "It's just, you think you're gonna wake up and there's gonna be a phone call from him or see him tomorrow. He's gonna walk thru the door, something."
Jacob was there as firefighters carried his friend to his final resting place. In his mind, Jacob was reliving happier memories. "Every Sunday we'd go up to Schooner's and watch football games," he recounted. "[Zobel] loved the Braves, always talked about it. If there was a debate on the Braves or Panthers, he was always there."
Jacob knew those days at the sports bar would soon be few and far between. Chance had popped the question to a girl both young men knew, and a wedding was set for the spring. "He talked about how he couldn't wait to have a family with her," said Hunke. "He knew the schedules of every firefighter, what his schedule would be, and so he could spend time with his family. How many kids he wanted to have with her, and all that stuff."
"All that stuff" will never happen, and on Wednesday, Jacob stood with his friend's fiancee. "Oh God," struggled Hunke. "Talking to her at the visitation was... I just broke down after that. I just couldn't take it because she's crushed and I saw what she wrote on his Facebook page a couple days ago it's just killer. I don't know how she's gonna get through this."
Jacob only hopes his friend's fiancee will find a way to grieve and move on, just like he and the rest of his crew will do. "This upcoming weekend one of our good friends was going to the beach, and Chance was gonna get off work and come," said Hunke. "It was going to be the five of us. And we were gonna cancel that, but you know, Chance would want us to not mourn not sit around and do nothing. You know, live and continue to do what we are doing. Just remember him in our hearts."
Zobel is the sixth firefighter in the over 100 years of the department's history to be killed in the line of duty.
The Columbia Fire Fighters Association is accepting donations for Chance Zobel's family. Donations can be sent to: The Columbia Fire Fighters Foundation at Palmetto Citizens Federal Credit Union. 1320 Washington Street Suite # 1, Columbia, SC 29201-3382. Account # 413001330078
The Columbia Fire Fighters Foundation is a 501(c)(3) group in place to accept donations which would be TAX EXEMPT under the Internal Revenue Laws.
The Columbia Firefighters Association can also be reached at: ColumbiaFirefighters@gmail.com