By 2nd Lt. Amanda Porter
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
“I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I had the chance,” said Staff Sgt. William Charleton, 19th Component Maintenance Squadron fuel system craftsman.
Inclement weather at an Arkansas Travelers baseball game Aug. 12, 2011, forced Charleton, his wife, Susannah and Airman 1st Class Kyle Gibson, 19th Equipment Maintenance Squadron ground equipment journey-man, to head back to the Charleton home in Cabot early that night.
The weather was nothing short of horrendous as the trio took their usual route home. What started as a simple outing with friends would drastically change the lives’ of Charleton, Gibson and, in turn, the Wallace family.
“My wife actually noticed the flames coming from the trees,” said Charleton. “I [thought] lightning probably hit a tree. Then we got up to the driveway and noticed it was not the tree; it was the actual house on fire.”
Susannah immediately dialed 911 as the group pulled into the driveway. Charleton and Gibson instantly bolted from the vehicle and began to beat on the windows and doors, trying to wake the Wallace family—husband, Michael; wife, Linda; daughter, Brooke.
“To this day I still don’t know how [Linda] was strong enough to open the door,” said Charleton. “I think it was just the initial shock of, ‘somebody’s beating on my door pretty hard; there must be something wrong,’ so she opened the door for me.”
“Something wrong” was exactly what sparked Linda to jump out of bed that night. Linda’s son, Ryan, had been spending the night at a friend’s house down the road.
“When I hear this banging, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, something’s happened to Ryan!’ So I had to open the door,” said Linda. For a moment, Charleton and Linda stood in the doorway in silence, exchanging looks. “He said, ‘Your house is on fire.’ I just kind of looked at him because that was not what I was expecting. Then he repeated, ‘Your house is on fire, and you need to get out.’”
Lightning had struck the Wallaces’ house. Since their smoke detectors were wired in, rather than battery operated, the entire system was fried. Linda wasn’t convinced they would ever have gone off even later.
“If we had not gotten there and the [Wallaces] had slept through the fire, there definitely would have been life lost I’m sure,” said Gibson.
From all the commotion, Linda’s husband, Michael, was already awake. He brought their daughter, Brooke, to Charleton. The thunderstorm was still raging as they sat Brooke safely in Charleton’s car.
Linda said by this point the flames could be seen coming off the roof where the lightning had struck; they were just leaping.
“It started right above [Brooke’s] room,” said Gibson. “We’ve seen pictures of the damage, and it was right on top of her bed.”
With the family out of harm’s way, they raced back into the house, retrieved the car keys and salvaged both vehicles in the garage before they were engulfed in flames. They even rescued the three family dogs.
“I wasn’t thinking. It was pure adrenaline,” said Charleton. “There are things you do that you don’t think about, you just do them. It’s instinct; it’s just reactions. You just do the best you can.”
“Yeah, it was a lot of adrenaline,” agreed Gibson. “I wasn’t really scared or nervous. I was just hoping we were able to get everybody out safely and nobody was harmed.”
Everyone said it seemed like forever until the emergency responders reached the house. The family lived outside city limits, so the logistics and thunderstorm slowed down the response. Dispatch reached the Mount Zion fire department, but by the end of the night, Jacksonville, Lonoke, Ward and anybody who could possibly come to help was there. Fire trucks stretched along the half mile from the highway to the Wallace’s front driveway.
The fire started around 11 p.m., and it was nearly 2 a.m. by the time it was extinguished.
Michael stayed up all night to make sure the house didn’t smolder. Charleton returned the following day to check on the family while they were still sorting through the shock of the event.
More than half the house suffered damage, but the Wallaces were able to rebuild. The areas immediately affected by the fire had been empty that night, with both their son and other daughter out of the house that night.
“I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time,” said Charleton. “I seem to have that luck. I don’t know what it is.”
Linda reflected on how the night had changed her family’s lives and said she appreciated the Airmen and was still so grateful that Charleton and Gibson stopped in the first place.
Gibson said it was the first time he had the opportunity to do something like helping a stranger. He recalled how the event impacted his life.
“It was over a year ago, but I felt really strongly about it at the time,” said Gibson. “I was really happy that nobody got hurt. If somebody had gotten hurt, it would’ve been a totally different story, but we were able to get them out and went back to normal life.”
Charleton described his action as completely in character and said he’s always been the type of person who, if he has the ability, will help someone out.
“I’ll pull up on the side of the road if I see somebody with a hood raised,” said Charleton, “[This event] just solidified the fact that I will never change my ways as much as people say, ‘why do you do this or that?’ I will always stop no matter what.”
Charleton received a Commendation Medal and Gibson received an Achievement Medal for their act of courage and service.