A servant gone as the county collectively mourns Tuesday afternoon
Batesburg-Leesville, SC (Paul Kirby) – Tuesday was a different type of day in Lexington County. While not everyone was involved in the funeral of Lexington County Fire Engineer Paul Quattlebaum, Jr., it was hard to be from around here and not know about the funeral. It drew hundreds if not thousands and was a fitting tribute and farewell to a man that lived the life of a servant. A man, a Marine, a firefighter always willing to help someone in need.
The first outward signs that Tuesday was different came as you drove through the county. Those fire stations you drive by daily without taking much note were very different. They weren’t staffed by Lexington County’s firefighters nor did they have our trucks there. During the service, firefighters and equipment came from across South Carolina to man the stations so our men and women could mourn the loss of their friend. Some came from Columbia, Irmo, and other departments close by. Some came from faraway places like Barnwell or the Parker Fire District, places all willing to help. They brought their equipment and protected us so that our men and women could say their goodbyes.
In Batesburg-Leesville, the closer you got to the high school, the venue where the funeral was held, the more you noticed the difference. There was an increase in law enforcement that was obvious. Officers were on every corner, some sitting in their cars, other quietly talking with each other. They were there waiting to block the route where Quattlebaum would take his last ride on a fire truck.
At the school, people began to gather. They came in droves. By the time the service started at 4:00 p.m., there was standing room only as the walls of the auditorium were lined with first responders. Some even spilled out into the lobby, but they were there; that’s what counted the most. They were there to see off a family member.
Just before the funeral began, a procession of fire and emergency equipment that seemed miles long made its way into a parking area reserved for those trucks, cars, and ambulances. Quattlebaum was in a flag draped casket riding atop one truck shrouded in black. He was flanked by two firefighters standing on each side of the casket. The emergency vehicles in the procession came from as far away as Myrtle Beach and Dekalb County Georgia. Large and small, the departments sent firefighters from everywhere to be apart of this goodbye.
The service was unlike any I’d seen before. Lexington County Fire Chief Mark Davis spoke of Paul and the last conversation they’d had. Davis’ passion for his work and the love he has for his staff were very evident. He loved and respected Paul for who he was, a servant. You could tell he feels the same about the rest of his team. Davis is a firefighter who has worked hard to become a chief. Tuesday reminded everyone he hadn’t forgotten where he came from.
The most heart wrenching part of the service was Quattlebaum’s family speaking. This family showed their true grit when a cousin, his aunt, and eventually his father spoke; something few could ever do, speak at the funeral of their child. It seemed as they spoke, everyone better understood who Paul was as a man and how he became what he was.
They remembered a mischievous boy who loved to run and play with family. A boy who was happiest outside, doing something, hunting, playing games that built the man and his character. The ingredients were all there. Take a young person, mix in some water, a pound of excitement, a little dirt, the smell of burning embers, and most importantly a desire to serve. These are all the ingredients for a great firefighter. After everyone had spoken, it was clear Quattlebaum had all those ingredients and more.
Before the service, Lexington County Council Chairman Scott Whetstone said, “This is such a tragedy for us all, but it’s also impressive to see this family of firefighters from everywhere coming to pay their respects. Since he’s been back in Batesburg-Leesville, he’s never been alone. We had firefighters that volunteered to stay with him from the time he got to the funeral home through the service today. This really is a brotherhood, a real family. No matter how spread apart or where they’ll report for duty tomorrow, they’re all family today.” Whetstone went on to say that he was impressed with how Chief Davis and his staff had handled the tragedy. “He genuinely cares about these men and women and right now that’s even clearer. That’s so important. He’s going to make sure our people are taken care of through all they are dealing with now and in the future.”
Councilmember Debbie Summers said, “The number of people that were willing to come here to help it’s so impressive. We are surrounded by people who have the hearts of servant leaders. We really are blessed.”
After the public ceremony, the family held a private service before enterment.