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200 Club honors area’s finest

Coastal Empire group helps public safety ‘heroes’

    Charles Campbell was off duty in Augusta one day when he saw smoke.

    James Conrath was on patrol at 2 in the morning when he saw flames.

    Campbell, a Savannah firefighter, and Conrath, an officer with the Glynn County Police Department, were honored with The 200 Club of the Coastal Empire’s first Valor Awards on Thursday night at the Chatham Club.

    “These two officers put their lives on the line and saved civilians,” 200 Club President and co-founder T.A. “Tak” Argentinis said of Campbell and Conrath.

    On Sept. 9, 2005, Campbell was at a VFW post in Augusta at a turkey shoot fundraiser. He saw smoke from a house fire on Lenox Drive and told the rest to call for help. When he got there, a lady nearby told him she thought there was someone still inside.

    He grabbed a garden hose and started battling the blaze and eventually went in through the house’s back door, Campbell found a man in the bathroom and led him outside.

    But the man darted back inside the house, thinking he had left the front door open. Campbell, originally from Hull, Mass., and now living in Midway with his wife and 1-month-old daughter, had to go back inside and bring him out again.

    Soon, nine fire engines from the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department arrived, and Campbell met with Battalion Chief Tommy Willis, told him he was a Savannah firefighter, put the man in the Augusta firefighters’ care, told them of a downed power line that was sparking and he was off.

    “I want to thank God for putting me in the right place at the right time,” he said.

    But Campbell left without notice and the Augusta firefighters had to trace his cell phone to find him and thank him.

    Conrath was on patrol on Kings Way on St. Simons Island early on the morning of June 16, 2005.

    “I saw a fire off to the right side,” he said. “But I couldn’t identify where it was coming from.”

    His path was blocked by two trees that had fallen onto the road. He eventually discovered a black Mercedes lying on its roof. The engine was on fire.

    Conrath called the accident in and got his fire extinguisher to quell the flames.

    “I had to extinguish the fire four or five times,” he said.

While he was doing that, he heard someone groan, but the doors to the car were jammed. Fellow officers David Gregory and Chris Seawell arrived, but the car’s gas tank was leaking.

    “We got the fire in the engine compartment put out,” Conrath said. “But by that time, the fire had gotten past the firewall.”

    Conrath could get into the car through the rear passenger door, but couldn’t reach the unconscious passenger. He, Gregory and Seawell tried in vain to get the front door open.

    “I said, ‘I’ve got to get this door open,’” Conrath said. “I yanked the door open.”

    They cut the seat belt off the passenger as EMS arrived.

    “We didn’t know how bad it was until the wrecker turned the car back over, and (the gas tank) looked like a waterfall,” Conrath said.

    Conrath, an Ohio native and a five-year veteran of the Glynn County force, drew praise from his commander.

    “I wish everybody was like him in that he is always looking to do the right thing,” said Glynn County Police Chief Matt Doering, “and most important, he puts others above himself.”

    The 200 Club of the Coastal Empire, formed in 1999, has supported the families of law enforcement officers who have been killed or badly hurt while on duty. They decided last year to begin the Valor Awards and took nominations last year from throughout the 20 counties they support.

    “There are acts of valor, and nobody knows it,” Argentinis said. “We want to change that. The Valor Award is designed to express our gratitude to the first responders in a very visible way.”

    Said Charles H. Morris, chairman of the 200 Club: “This tonight, I think, is a way to say thank you to them.”

    Argentinis said the rules for the Valor Award are very strict, and the nominations are reviewed by a group of command officers, led by former Savannah Police Chief David Gellatly. One police officer and one firefighter will be chosen each year for the Valor Award.

    The 200 Club now has more than 270 members and nearly $500,000 in its treasury. Argentinis said the past year was “the most devastating” for the 200 Club. Four officers were killed in the line of duty — including Effingham County Deputy Dennis Wright and Bryan County Deputy Michael Larson — and another — Savannah-Chatham Police Officer John Allen, a Guyton resident — was killed in an off-duty accident. Two officers, including Effingham Deputy Derrick Seckinger, were seriously hurt in the line of duty.

    “A number of (the incidents) were right before Christmas,” Argentinis said. “I think the jolt to the community was severe.”

    Since its inception the 200 Club of the Coastal Empire has responded 22 times and has dispensed nearly $250,000 to the families of fallen and stricken officers.

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