Friends come to the rescue of one who rescued many

Sep. 17, 2013 @ 08:41 PM

As a proverbial saying puts it, a man’s life can either serve as an example to follow or as a warning to avoid.

Gus Gray of Henderson, a man dedicated to a life of service, left paralyzed from an avoidable accident, is proving that in reality a man’s life can be both.

It can also include an army of friends.

Gray’s army is building him a household makeover on Watson Road because he is wheelchair-bound after a May 16 crash in Wake County. He has been scraping walls and skinning up knees trying to make his way around cramped indoor areas.

He maintains a steely core of determination in his gaze as he talks about it. His adjustment struggle is one of an obviously active and high-energy person to perhaps the least suited lifestyle for him: life in a wheelchair.

Warning to avoid

“I dozed off for just a second,” Gray said of the instant before his Mazda Miata veered off N.C. 56 at the Johnston/Wake county line. “I was overtired from working several shifts. I really shouldn’t have been driving.”

Gray added, “I tried to get back on the road, and I just couldn’t.”

The car hit a concrete pipe set in a culvert off the roadway. According to Gray, he remained awake while firefighters and paramedics of that area worked on his rescue.

His father, 43-year firefighting veteran Charlie Gray, said fighting fires gets in the blood. It is a lifestyle that can be a passion for those who are the most prepared, trained and capable. The blow of a career ending injury is very hard to take.

“He obtained every certification you can possibly get being a firefighter,” Charlie said. “He was living his passion. This is hard for someone who works as much as Gus has. I believe that the one thing that hurts the most is knowing that he’ll never be able to get on a fire truck again.”

The shifts added up to 136 hours straight. His career included part-time work at Durham County’s Redwood Fire Department and with the Vance County Fire Department in addition to his full-time job at Bethesda Fire, also in Durham County.

Gus Gray worked the 136 hours before driving into Johnston County to take care of some needs at a rental property owned by his family. The crash took place while he was heading home again.

Bethesda Fire Chief Dean Pike said he could recognize that lifestyle from his own younger years.

“We understand what happened,” Pike said. “This was one real experience that changed all of our lives. Everyone here has learned from his mistakes, and it is very much on everyone’s mind.”

Pike characterized it as catching the firefighter bug: something he had about 15 years ago for more than a year when he would live at the firehouse and visit home only briefly for a few hours.

“I would go home and pay some bills, cut the grass,” Pike said, “take a couple hours and then be back at the fire station. I can relate to how somebody can put themselves in that position. It’s just a part of who you are.”

But sleep is not the same at a fire station. There is constant activity, buzzers buzzing, other sounds. It is a work place, and at times the work calls you away, suddenly. You might sleep lighter because of that expectation.

“I know I never sleep as well at the station,” Pike said. “Now, with a wife and children, I can leave work at work. That actually took a while, but as you get older you grow a little wiser.”

Pike said his department is in the midst of some policy changes, and some attention will be made to formulate recommendations against fatigue, to warn younger firefighters against over-working, over-extending themselves.

Example to follow

Gus Gray’s fianceé Nichole Williamson said amidst the uphill climb against all that burdens her young family, “dealing with all of this,” there has been an awakening as well.

She never imagined what it might be like to be in a fight like this. Also, she never knew how an army of firefighting brothers and their supporters in a community could band together, joining them in that fight.

Her young family includes little Gracie, her daughter from before she and Gus started dating last July.

“We were supposed to get married in the beginning of August, but we postponed the wedding because of the accident,” Williamson said. “This has been overwhelming, really. I see how much work has been done each day. It is showing me what kind of person Gus is, to have the kind of brotherhood we have in them.”

Meanwhile, Gus credits his progress to that brotherhood. With them he is climbing back, but he doesn’t have a clear view of what a further future looks like.

“I don’t think I have it together yet,” he said. “It is a very difficult, stressful thing. Right now we’re just busy with the rehab, all my doctor appointments. I have six doctors, and there is the addition to the house. It has been a full-time effort, so we haven’t figured out what we’re going to do yet.”

Because of so much donated effort, and donated supplies thanks to Home Depot, there is real progress on the home front, getting a livable situation together for Gray in his own home.

“This is something that had to be done, one way or another, but for this brotherhood to come together and help as much as they have has been overwhelming,” he said. “They have been doing a fantastic job, with full, standing structures up in less than 10 days.

“I can’t wait to use the new additions. It is going to make things so much easier.”

It began with a group of firefighters sitting around, thinking about the needed work and then realizing they either had or knew other firefighters who had the needed skills from their second jobs or other hobbies.

Charlie Gray said that he thanks key organizers such as Home Depot district manager Alex Amo for supplies, including work on a grant fund from a corporate program. Mike Brown with Franklin County EMS poured the footings for the addition, and Gray said, “wouldn’t take anything for it.”

He is also thankful for Pike, organizing the daily activities. And volunteers include firefighters and friends from Durham and Vance counties, Raleigh, and several from even further away.

“We had 35 volunteers there the first day,” Charlie Gray said. “We have had an outpouring of help, some employees from Home Depot helped too, not just firefighters.”

Charlie also credits his son for showing a comeback stamina whether he realizes it or not. He knows the desire is there in Gus to get back active again, but there are some medical hurdles to overcome first.

Gus would like to be involved with competitive sports again. He has medical conditions to sort out, including with his back, according to Charlie.

“He has always been very active, in good shape and healthy,” Charlie said. “He was always working out at the gym.”

Offers are on the table for Gus Gray to work his way along a new career direction that still involves helping people in their greatest time of need: offers from the Durham County 911 office and Vance County E-911.

“Because of his experience with fire and EMS, he would make a great dispatcher,” Charlie Gray said.

The 33-year-old Gray said he had been putting in time at station houses since he was 16, helping however he could as he and his sister Sara, now a paramedic nurse, followed in their father’s footsteps. He had nine years experience on staff with the three fire departments.

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