Vincent Schiavone spent 22 years fighting fires in New Jersey.
On Saturday, his life was turned upside down by one.
Schiavone, his wife, Michele, and their two children lost everything when their condominium in the Windsor Green community of Carolina Forest was destroyed in a blaze that quickly leveled 26 buildings and left hundreds homeless.
All the former firefighter could do Monday was fight back tears.
I never thought in a million years someone would be coming to rescue me, Schiavone said.
The Windsor Green residents impacted by Saturdays fire have different backgrounds, but their stories of escaping the inferno had similar themes.
Theirs were stories of only minutes in which to get to safety, giving them time to gather up important paperwork but not enough to grab cherished family photos and other irreplaceable mementos.
Julie Tudino scooped up her dog, pocketbook and necessary documents as she left her condo on Twin Pond Court after seeing smoke.
There wasnt time to grab anything else, not her engagement ring, not her husband Alfreds wedding and college rings.
I lost all the pictures of my late husband, Tudino said.
She didnt have time for the mementos but made time to knock on the doors of her neighbors, Bill and Helen Rapp, who lived downstairs, and alert them to the fire.
We had less than five minutes to get out, Helen Rapp said.
The three neighbors were standing in line Monday at X Gym Sports Mall off George Bishop Parkway, a recreation facility that is also serving as a makeshift warehouse for donations of clothes, toiletries, toys and other items community members have donated to help those affected by the Windsor Green fire.
The Rapps and Tudino filled plastic bags with toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant and other necessities.
Bill Rapp, who lived in Windsor Green with his wife for 15 years, said he and Helen are mad at themselves for not grabbing personal effects as they left their condo, but glad they didnt run back for them as it probably would have cost their lives.
Its the memories. Photo albums, wedding pictures. You cant replace them, Bill Rapp said.
The Rapps have been in touch with their children in Rochester, NY, since Saturdays fire.
Tudino has talked with family in her native state of Rhode Island and said she may go back there. Right now, though, that remains undecided.
Here for a new start
Jon and Kelly Downey just moved to Horry County from Pennsylvania less than a year ago.
The Downeys were encouraged by Jons cousin, Schiavone, to make a fresh start in Carolina Forest.
The family members were neighbors, and it was Schiavone who beat on Jon Downeys door to let him know the fire was getting close.
We just jumped in the car and got out of dodge, Jon Downey said.
Schiavone and Downey were outside of Beach Church Monday morning across from X Gym, where the local Red Cross was helping residents displaced by the fire.
At one point, the visibly upset and shaken cousins hugged each other through tears, reassuring themselves they would get through this.
Schiavone thanked God the fire happened while the sun was still up, and not late at night when everyone would have been sleeping.
We all would have been dead, Schiavone said. Its a nightmare. Its still a dream.
Kelly Downey reflected on how beautiful the Windsor Green development was, and how tragic that its gone.
We moved here a year ago and now we have nothing. My children have nothing, she said.
Binding together to help
Lots of Windsor Green residents escaped the fire with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Several came to X Gym to pick up a few much-needed necessities for getting through the next few days.
Cindy Kauffman, vice president of retail for the area Goodwill, said families have vouchers for three sets of clothes at any store.
Donations have been coming to either X Gym or one of the local Goodwill locations, Kauffman said.
Myrtle Beach resident Bubba Owens dropped off an entire trailer full of clothes, DVDs and other items.
All those items were originally set for sale in his girlfriends yard sale, Owens said, but they decided it would be better used to help the residents of Windsor Green.
We always like to give back to the community, Owens said.
On Monday, dozens of volunteers were sorting through the clothes brought to X Gym by Owens and others.
Murrells Inlet resident Ed Brown was one of them.
Hes currently laid off from his former job and wanted to volunteer.
This is my community and Id hope someone would do it for me, Brown said.
Vivian Gilmer lives in the Brightwater Senior Community Center near Carolina Forest, so she felt a personal connection to the tragedy.
Plus, Gilmer has spent many years helping with disaster relief, including a stint in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
I just think...thats what we were put on this earth to do, to help people, Gilmer said.