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Photos: Off-duty S.C. firefighter rescues 4 from burning home without safety gear

Rookie Myrtle Beach Firefighter Nathan Ellis pulled the family members out through a back window that he punched out with his bare hands


Photo/Myrtle Beach Fire Department

By Adam Benson
The Sun News

GEORGETOWN COUNTY, S.C. — Tammy Majid stood in the hallway of her burning Georgetown County home, fearful the last image she’d have was her brother-in-law Joey Godwin’s profile illuminated by flames.

“I could see the glow on his face from the fire outside,” Majid said Thursday as she navigated debris, broken glass and other painful reminders of what was lost in an April 8 blaze.

Among that lost is family photos, hymnals, antique furniture, and pets.

Authorities haven’t yet said what sparked the fire, but Majid and other home occupants believe it could have been from faulty wiring.

But a quick-thinking rookie Myrtle Beach firefighter is refusing to let tragedy be the only tale for the family.

Nathan Ellis pulled Majid and three others to safety through a back window of their 13506 Browns Ferry Road home that he punched out with bare hands. He did it while he was off-duty and with none of the safety gear he dons on the job.

He was celebrating Easter dinner at the home of grandparents-in-law, who live directly across the street.

“I know God was in it every step of the way, just in the way things worked out. I think He used my training, but I know God was with me every step of the way and directed my path to this family,” Ellis said April 26.

The 35-year-old Marine Corps veteran was bestowed a valor commendation by the Myrtle Beach Fire Department on April 25, the agency’s highest honor reserved for acts of bravery that go above and beyond the call of duty. Ellis joined the force full-time last May.

He and his wife, Ashley, have stayed close to the family Ellis saved.

For Ellis, firefighting is an extension of his ministry work

Ellis, who left the ministry full-time to pursue a firefighting career, isn’t comfortable with being called a hero. He even went back to work days after the rescue and never brought it up.

“At the end of the day, I think why God blessed me not necessarily as a great firefighter but as somebody who is willing to help people is because I’ve experienced His love, and it compels me to want to help others in the same way,” he said.

Fire Chief Tom Gwyer said during an April 25 city council meeting he only learned of Ellis’ actions through Georgetown County officials.

“Without (Ellis’) help, it is likely the loss of life could have been a reality of the incident. Firefighter Ellis’ quick thinking and dedication to the fire service is a true example of the Myrtle Beach Fire Department’s motto of “Earn it,”’ Georgetown County Fire EMS Lt. William Shultzaberger wrote in a letter to Gwyer.

It was around 2 p.m. when Ellis noticed a plume of smoke rising from the Browns Ferry Roadhouse. He dashed across the front yard of his wife Ashley’s grandparents’ house, avoiding an electrified deer fence rimming the property.

After discovering the home’s locked front door, Ellis returned to find a boarded-up window. He punched out the glass, tore down the plywood and crawled down a hallway thick with smoke.

“I remember asking multiple times, ‘where’s the fire department, does anybody have them on the line,’” Ellis said. “Adrenaline’s pumping so fast and there were rounds going off inside the house. After we got everybody out of the house, we kind of had to get people back.”

After finding two people and leading them back out the window, they told him others were inside.

“He’s at that decision that no firefighter ever has to make: Do I continue, or do a I turn around knowing that there’s somebody in there and you pretty much seal their fate,’” Gwyer said April 25. “Nate hangs tough.”

Godwin was one of the first people inside the house pulled to safety.

Majid’s daughter Savannah, 17, rushed to the house from work, knowing her mother was out but unsure about the rest of her family.

“She didn’t even know we was out of there and she got terrified,” Godwin said. “I don’t think we would have got out if that man hadn’t been there.”

Once Ellis knew nobody else was in the house, he stayed back to help Georgetown firefighters run a water supply and set up a perimeter. The Ellises then provided the displaced residents lunch.

If the story ended there, it would have been enough for Tammy Majid and her family to know Ellis was their guardian angel.

A friendship forged from tragedy

In the three weeks since his rescue, Ellis and his wife have coordinated relief efforts for the family, from offering prayer to helping raise money and supplies.

Godwin’s daughter Danielle Moore launched a GoFundMe page with a goal of $150,000. As of April 28, just more than $5,100 has been collected.

As Majid walked the scorched remains of the house that’s been in her family for three generations, she bent down to pour food for several outdoor cats that live on the property. The animals rubbed against her legs and exchanged meows as they ate.

Majid said she got comfort knowing they’re safe, but the fire took the lives of her beloved dogs Ben and Oreo, while several other cats and a rabbit are presumed dead.

Shortly after the fire, neighbors buried the dogs in the front yard, putting up a small white cross. Hymnals and family pictures — including several with the pets — were visible through what remained of the house.

Majid and her family were able to salvage a few things, storing them in a vehicle on site until they get settled. A stack of family photo albums are in the back seat.

From underneath a pile of pots and pans Majid pulled out a Bible, the edge of its pages blackened and turned upward though legible.

Godwin’s dog Jack was pulled to safety but has a permanent scar on his neck from where a collar melted into his skin.

Heartbreaking, yes, Majid said. But also an example of her community’s willingness to rally around her family in a time of need.

“We appreciate everything that people are doing for us. We lost our little animals, we don’t have our furry babies with us. There are so many memories in that house, and it hurts so bad that we lost it. We worry every day where we’re going to go,” Majid said. “It’s been a nightmare for me, it really has. We just want a home.”

As for Ellis’ recognition, Majid said her family was unaware it was happening but were grateful to Myrtle Beach officials for rewarding his heroism.

“I thank everybody for doing that for him because we wanted to honor him ourselves but we didn’t know how do it,” she said. “But when that came up I was like, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe they did that for him.’”

This story was originally published April 30, 2023, 7:00 AM.


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