Two Chiefs, Two Islands, One Friendship
Isle of Palms Fire Chief Anne Graham was the first female chief in the state, but she wouldn't be here today without Sullivan's Island Fire Chief Anthony Stith. By Jennifer Tuohy. Photos by Steve Rosamilia.
The morning of July 9, 1973, a slice of Sullivan’s Island history burned to the ground. The old concession stands of The Breakers, a 1920s dance pavilion, caught fire and started a blaze that consumed a large portion of Middle Street and Station 22 1/2, including the former Post Office. But as one part of the island’s history disintegrated into ashes, another was born.
Half a block away, a redheaded tomboy woke to the sound of the crackle and pop of her hometown on fire. The sky was a blazing orange color and the 13-year-old leapt out of the cot she was sleeping in on her grandmother’s porch and ran toward the glowing fames. That first taste of soot and smoke sparked something in Ann Graham.
Another young island resident also had his first brush with disaster at a similar age. Michael Anthony Stith was 12 years old when his father, Sullivan’s Island’s volunteer fire chief, took him on his first rescue call. It was a double drowning. “He put me in the rescue boat,” Stith recalls. “That’s where I got it in my blood—going with him on calls.”
It takes something special to be a freighter; to have the drive, the need even, to be the one who runs into the burning building not out of it. It is something they’re born with, an instinct to help people even when they must put themselves in danger to do so. For these two Sullivan’s Islanders, what they discovered as children living on an isolated strip of land—where help was often far away— would lead them to careers as chief protectors of our barrier islands.
A TOUGH PATH TO FOLLOW
For Stith, 63, the path to becoming Sullivan’s Island fire chief was almost inevitable. The third son of Louis Stith, the man who helped form the island’s first fire department, Anthony Stith initially tried to take a different path. He worked for a finance firm in Columbia briefly, before taking his first firefighting job with Mount Pleasant in 1974. A career at the naval shipyard was then pressed on him by his mother, but after four years he knew it wasn’t for him, and he returned to Mount Pleasant FD. Clearly, something kept pulling him back to fire and rescue, and closer to home. Perhaps it was the call of his ancestor, Michael McGuire, who was a surfman at the Sullivan’s Island lifeguard station in the late 1800s.
In 1982 Stith accepted the Town of Sullivan’s Island’s offer to be fire chief, with a salary of $12,000 approved by a council that included his brother Marshall Stith. Councilman Roger Beck told The Post & Courier at the time that the “salary was higher than budgeted, but the council feels Stith is well-respected with the volunteers and is the best hope for the department.” Looking back 35 years later, it appears that was a wise investment.
For the young Graham however, it was a very different story. Her interest sparked by the fire that burned down Middle Street, Graham started hanging out with the firemen at her school bus stop, which happened to be in front of the fire station. Picking up some tips from them, she was inspired to take a CPR course at Wando High School.
Then tragedy struck her street again. A fire broke out at 2208 Ion on March 10, 1979. Graham’s neighbor, Julia Carter, was inside. Firefighters had pulled her out and a nurse who lived nearby was performing CPR alone. Graham rushed to help the 64-year-old woman, but the then-fire chief told her to “get out of the way.” Carter died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
“I don’t remember if they said, ‘you’re just a kid’ or ‘you’re just a girl,’ but they said, ‘we don’t need you,’” Graham recalls. “Right there I decided that I never wanted to be in the position where I wasn’t allowed to help again.”
Getting into that position, however, proved far more difficult than she anticipated. “I tried to join [the Sullivan’s Island Volunteer Fire & Rescue squad] right after my neighbor died. I was told you must be able to do XYZ, and I did it. Ten it was ‘Well actually you need to be able to do ABC,’ so I did it. But then I was told ‘You need to do ABCD... XYZ’—so I did all that. Then I was told, ‘Well actually we don’t have any openings right now....’’’
The problem was that she was a woman. And that was a problem she couldn’t solve until there was a change of guard. “I wanted to join, but the previous chief did not appear to need my services. So, when Anthony came along I asked if I could join and he said ‘I need all the help I can get—but you have to get voted in.’’’
She applied and found herself standing in a room surrounded by volunteer firemen, seeking their approval. “I’ll never forget, one of the big fellows in the room says ‘Ann Marie, no offense, but I don’t think you can get me out of a building.’ I looked at him and said, ‘No offense to you, but I don’t think there’s any one person in this room who can get you out of a building.’ I got voted in.”
BROTHERS IN BOOTS
On a sunny, January day in 2016, Chief Stith and Chief Graham sit across from each other in the Sullivan’s Island Fire Station, discussing their careers, sparring and reminiscing as only old friends can. The opposites of each other in every characteristic—Graham petite, blonde and naturally reserved, Stith, tall and broad with a booming laugh and constant twinkle in his eye— they are like two peas in a very uniquely shaped pod. They finish each other’s sentences and often seem to know what the other one is saying before they even open their mouth.
“Don’t pull the girl thing—just do your job,” Stith says as we discuss the issues women in the fire department face. “I don’t look at color, race, size, shape, gender. We interview the candidates and hire the best person.” Those principles held him in good stead when he went out on a limb and hired Graham as the first female volunteer firefighter in Sullivan’s Island’s history.
“I remember my helmet didn’t ft when I first started,” Graham says. “I was told ‘You have a regulation helmet on a non-regulation head.’” Stith and Graham laugh, looking at each other knowingly. Uniforms, it appears, were a big issue. Starting with the pair of men’s Dickies pants Stith gave her. “He told me, ‘Just go get them altered.’”
“One of my first big fires, I had been issued my jumpsuit, but I hadn’t been issued my boots yet,”
Graham says. “I grew up running barefoot on Sullivan’s, so when the call came out in the middle of the night, I go flying out the door with my jumpsuit on and no shoes!”
She was standing at the pump panel when a chief from the Mount Pleasant Department approached her and asked: “Have you ever pumped a truck before?” “I said, ‘No sir,’ and he said, ‘The most important thing you can do is if I say shut it off, you hit that button as hard as you can.’ I just stood there with my fist in the air the whole time.”
“After the fire, Chief Cyrus Pye came up to me and said ‘Anthony, you need to get that girl some boots,’” Stith recalls with a laugh. Stith took his advice and within three years had turned Graham into a fully-fledged firefighter. She went on to a career on neighboring Isle of Palms, where she became the island’s first certified fire fighter. By 1989 she had been promoted to captain and five years later became the first female chief in the state.
“Being the first female fire chief is irrelevant,” she says dismissively of this significant milestone for her sex. While being repeatedly denied entry to the profession she knew was her life-calling because of her sex undoubtedly gave Graham many of the tools she needed to excel at it, she simply doesn't have time for dealing with the “woman issue.”
She didn’t accept an invitation to join a Women in Fire organization, because, she says pragmatically, “How can I say, ‘don’t treat me differently’ if I’m in a different group?”
Is it easier for women in the fire service today though? “No,” she says without hesitation. “But the uniforms ft better.”
For anyone involved in emergency services in the Charleston area over the past few decades, there are two events that stand out, that shaped who and what you are. Hurricane Hugo and the Sofa Super Store fire.
“September 11th was a big impact for accountability, but I would have to say locally the Sofa Super Store was a big change,” Graham says, recalling the tragic fire in West Ashley that claimed the lives of nine Charleston fire fighters on June 18, 2007. “It’s not that we weren’t already progressing, but that was a huge wake-up call for everybody.”
It prompted a sea change in the way local departments ran big fire calls. “Safety rules that were in place but needed to be implemented came into focus,” Stith said. “People running without air packs, that stopped. Bringing in RIT [Rapid Intervention Teams], that’s all come about since. There’s a lot more mutual aid, automatic aid. Sometimes I think there’s too much aid.... I think the duty personnel need to get to the situation and figure out what they need and get on the radio. You get a pot on the stove, fill the house with smoke and four or five engines show up nowadays. It leaves too many places open [unprotected].”
The hurricane that destroyed Isle of Palms and devastated Sullivan’s Island on September 9, 1989 is a striking personal marker in the lives of both firefighters. “I have two lives, before Hugo and after Hugo,” Stith says. “That’s the culture of the people in this area. Sullivan’s Island is a great town, and it’s changed completely several times.
IOP hasn’t changed since the day I grew up. Except it’s got bigger houses.”
“I lost everything to Hugo,” Graham says, who was living on both islands at the time. “Except a couple ceramics—a little helmet, a little boot. Everything everybody in my family owned—cars, trucks, houses, everything. We started over.”
“I remember commandeering a friend’s boat and coming out to the island a couple days after,” Stith says. “The bridge was of its axis, but from a distance it didn’t look so bad. When you got up close though....”
Stith, who has lived in Mount Pleasant most of his adult life, had a bar on Isle of Palms at the time. “It was called Tree Sheets in the Wind, right on Front Beach. After Hugo, it was gone,” he says. “Hugo took out our playground.”
Tragedy and destruction are par for the course for firefighters, but there’s always that one call that stands out. For Graham it was a windy Friday the 13th in 1999. “Wild Dunes. That’s the one that doesn’t seem to want to go away for me,” she says. “We could have lost the end of Wild Dunes.”
The fire was eventually controlled, but not without the loss of four structures, belonging to “some very influential people,” including then U.S. Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings and race-car driver Kyle Petty, ensuring the incident gained national attention. “Thank God nobody got hurt and everybody did a wonderful job, the fire was quickly getting away due to high winds and propane tank explosions.”
Sometimes however, it doesn’t work out the way you would hope; with everyone safe. “The hardest thing is when things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to,” Graham says. “When somebody dies you beat yourself up wondering why you couldn't save them. But the reality is they were probably dead before you got there.”
“We had a whole family drown once, a mother father, baby and a young boy. They got the boy out, but they ended up drowning trying to get the baby,” Stith recalls. “At that time one of my sons was about the same age. That was the worst thing. I had to ask [Father] Ross why did this happen? You start wondering, questioning your faith....”
CHALLENGES BRING CHANGE
Something those who work on the front line as first responders know best, is that the upside to tragedy and disaster is the chance to make things better—to try and make sure these things never happen again, or at least be prepared for when they do. For the islands’ two chiefs, one of the biggest challenges they face is the changing nature of their islands.
“The size of the structures has significantly increased, and the size of the staff has not,” Graham says. “In the summertime, we go from a population of 5,000 to 30,000, but we still have the same amount of people looking after everyone.” Tis lopsided math is clearly something that keeps both chiefs awake at night. “I agree with that,” Stith says. “I joke sometimes that if somebody puts one more car over here we’re going to sink.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. “I can remember growing up here in the summertime, my cousins would come over and we’ve got pictures of us on the beach and no one’s out there,” Stith says. “Now both islands are year-round destinations—there’s no such thing as seasons anymore. I remember when we’d have 300 people left on the island in the winter.”
Both chiefs have fond memories of growing up on Sullivan’s, a place where their family roots are deep. Stith’s family is literally embedded into the island's history: The park is named after his brother, former mayor Marshall Stith, and the bridge for his father, Judge Louis Stith. Graham’s South Carolina roots go all the way back to the Civil War, her great great great grandfather Robert Graham fought alongside Brigadier General Hagood. Her parents lived on opposite ends of Ion Avenue Street when they were children.
Stith grew up going on fire and rescue calls with his father, while Graham grew up watching them from her home, a few doors down from the fire station. They both played in the abandoned forts and on the beaches, they both rode bicycles and boxes down the side of The Mound (“I still to this day look for boxes to ride down that hill,” Graham says. “There’s one by the door at the station that I’ve been eyeing!”).
Today, as they watch their children and grandchildren grow up doing the same things, experiencing the same yet different islands, they can be proud that their combined history, their knowledge and experience, and their friendship has helped make these islands a safer place to live.