Pure happenstance put Capt. Paul Weir and his East Manatee County Fire and Rescue engine company on Cape San Blas.
Luck of the draw put his team, four among the 28 members of the Manatee County strike team assembled to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, in Gulf County.
But just as tales of bonds forged in war are part of the history books, the experiences of Weir and his company during more than two weeks in Gulf County are indelible and long-lasting.
“We definitely feel like we accomplished a lot, but what I remember most are the personal connections,” Weir said by phone. “That will be the thing that for me will last forever.
“Their faces, their stories, and the connections we made. I will remember that forever.”
The Manatee County strike team was assembled from personnel who volunteered for the mission, along with the required compliment of officers.
“From across all three of our shifts we had an overwhelmingly positive response for volunteers,” Weir said. “It is an honor to serve and it is an adventure.
“Some guys were a little upset they didn’t get to go.”
Weir and engine Co. 641 originally staged in Tallahassee before Michael’s arrival and moved to Marianna in the days immediately following landfall, clearing roads, assisting in search and rescue missions and supporting basic fire and rescue services.
They were relieved by another company and by the Monday after Michael, six days after landfall, they arrived at South Gulf Fire and Rescue Station No. 1.
Their orders to assist in fire and rescue in the south end of the county.
It was Weir’s first visit to the area and it was clear the company, which includes four firefighters and an engine, would be here for a bit.
“We were originally told it would be a 7-14 day deployment,” Weir said. “When we got there and saw the destruction we knew it was going to be at least a 14-day deployment.”
They arrived at Station No. 1 and got immediately to work.
“When we got there we found everything was pretty much in order except all the sand and mud in the fire house from storm surge,” Weir said. “They were still trying to clean the station.
“With their volunteers we cleaned the floors, sprayed and sprayed them and got the station clean and functional, rid of all that nastiness.”
The floors of those newly-cleaned bays became their sleeping quarters for the first few nights.
But, as they became familiar sights around the south end, those who had remained during the storm, who were clawing out a survival mode without power and water, took those visiting firefighters in.
One homeowner invited the four to stay one night in their home and another homeowner soon followed.
There was no power or water, but it sure beat the station house floors.
“Even with all the destruction I could see it is a beautiful place and will be again,” Weir said. “Moreso, the people, and the personal connections we made. I’ll never forget it.
“We all happily agreed to serve. Our hearts were pouring out for all of Gulf County.”
And, for Weir and his men it was also an opportunity to serve beside volunteers and what Weir called the “purest form of service.”
Today, roughly 70 percent of fire departments nationwide remain at least partially, if not fully, volunteer; people, Weir noted, who devote their time, energies and, yes, lives, to serving and protecting the community.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see,” Weir said. “I was honored to serve with those people.”
The company even extended its deployment an additional day, delayed returning home, to allow the South Gulf department members to attend the funeral of county Fire Coordinator Brad Price.
“We were honored and blessed to be able to help that way,” Weir said.
The experience of watching these strangers sum comrades also left an indelible mark for the firefighters left behind.
“I was humbled and honored just to serve with them,” said Mike Barrett, Assistant Chief for South Gulf Fire and Rescue.