Wilburn to end 28-year career as Beaufort's fire chief

Beaufort Fire Department Chief Wendell Wilburn will retire April 1  after 29 years as a Beaufort firefighter, 28 of them as chief.
Beaufort Fire Department Chief Wendell Wilburn will retire April 1 after 29 years as a Beaufort firefighter, 28 of them as chief. BOB SOFALY | The Beaufort Gazette

Port Royal police officer Lt. John Griffith hates to think what might have happened if Beaufort Fire Chief Wendell Wilburn had not responded to his call for help Aug. 1, 1999.

Griffith was shot in the head. Officer Bill Eustis lay in the line of fire, bleeding from gunshot wounds to his arm and abdomen. Both were pinned down by a sniper holed up in a Port Royal mobile home.That's when Port Royal Police Chief James Cadien backed a car between Eustis and the shooter. Meanwhile, Wilburn and Beaufort County Sheriff's Deputy Grant Hall crept next to the vehicle and pulled Eustis into a nearby ambulance.

In all, four officers were shot and the shooter, Jeff Clements, died after setting his home on fire and shooting himself. All four officers, including Eustis, survived. Attempts to reach Eustis, who now lives in North Carolina, for comment were unsuccessful."(If Wilburn hadn't showed up), Bill Eustis would have bled to death," Griffith said. "He didn't think about what he was doing, didn't think about how dangerous it was. He just did what needed to be done. That's the kind of chief he is -- always right there with his guys."

That's the kind of chief the city of Beaufort will lose next week.

The city announced Wilburn's retirement Tuesday after 29 years with the city's fire department, 28 of those as fire chief. Wilburn was one of 10 employees to take early retirement packages offered by the city in February. His last day is April 10.

Wilburn, 55, a Port Royal native, volunteered with the Port Royal Fire Department as a teenager before becoming Sea Pines-Forest Beach Fire Department's first paid firefighter. The department was one of two on Hilton Head Island that eventually merged to form the Town of Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division.

Wilburn worked seven years on Hilton Head, then in 1980 became the Beaufort Fire Department's training officer.

"So I came up here and the fire department was in this single-wide mobile home next to the condemned firehouse (on Craven Street)," he said. "The administrative folks were in the front of the trailer, there was a kitchen in the middle and in the back of the trailer were stacks of bunk beds. I knew it was going to be challenge and that we had a lot of work to do."

Wilburn oversaw construction of the firehouse on Ribaut Road in 1984 and negotiated an agreement between Beaufort and Port Royal in 1991 to allow the city to manage the town's fire service.Having responded to hundreds of fires and medical calls, Wilburn said there is one thing he's proud to have never had to do.

"We've only had two injuries to a firefighter in my time here," he said. "I'm pretty damn proud of that. I've never had to go over to someone's house and tell a wife or a family member that something happened to one of their loved ones on the job. I don't just see names on the board or even their faces when I look at my firefighters. There are families behind those faces."

Wilburn once hired many of those now serving as fire chiefs in other jurisdictions, including Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District Chief Bruce Kline, Burton Fire District Chief Harry Rountree and Sheldon Fire District Chief Buddy Jones.

Kline worked as a firefighter for Wilburn for 10 years after leaving the Marine Corps. He took solace in knowing his mentor was never more than a phone call away after he was hired as chief of the Fripp Island Fire Department in 1994.

"When I left the city of Beaufort to become chief out at Fripp Island, I called Wendell many times to pick his brain," Kline said. "He's a really great fire chief."

Kline said his former boss is the gold standard for fire chiefs across the county and across the state.

"Firefighting is not a 9-to-5 job, and when you're fire chief, you never have a day off," he said. "For over 25 years, Chief Wilburn was ultimately responsible for the lives and property of all residents in the city of Beaufort. The city should never forget that."

Wilburn was honored Tuesday by a joint resolution passed by the S.C. General Assembly recognizing his service to the city and to the state. The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort.

Joe Palmer, executive director of the S.C. Firefighters' Association, said the resolution speaks to the effect Wilburn has had on the state's fire service.

"Everyone knew him either by face or by name," Palmer said. "Whenever we'd have one of our conferences, you'd always look for him. When you found him, he was holding court. People just wanted to be around him and listen to him and learn from him. He was a mainstay of our association."

Wilburn served terms as the president of the S.C. Firefighters' Association, S.C. Fire Chiefs Association, and the Beaufort County Fire Chief Association.

Wilburn said he would have accomplished nothing, and likely been a poor fire chief, if not for the support of his wife, Linda, and daughters Christine, Melissa and Lacey.

"When you have anything special planned, you can usually bet that something is going to come up that's work-related," he said. "I've left my wife at plenty of restaurants, at the movies, birthday parties, but I never received any grief for that. I'm pretty blessed in that regard."