Winston-Salem firefighter gathers toys for brother’s hurricane-ravaged fire department

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Twins have a special connection. For John Powell, a Winston-Salem firefighter, and his twin brother James, chief of the Princeville Fire Department, that’s no different. In October, during Hurricane Matthew, John nearly became the only remaining one of the two.

“Some firefighters here told me that they heard that my brother was involved in a rescue and he almost lost his life. So, I called the station, I heard a lot of commotion in the background,” John recalled. “They were still making rescues.”

During the rescue, James nearly drowned. When John went to Princeville to help with rescue efforts, he quickly found that his brother was not able to perform his duties, so he stepped in as acting chief.

“I’ve seen people, emergency responders, break down because of the psychological toll it’s taken on them,” John said.

John’s story in Princeville began decades ago. He not only grew up there, but served there as a volunteer firefighter. In 1999, he had his first experience with flooding in Princeville, when he himself lost everything.

“I have a deep connection and a sense of duty to the people in Princeville,” he said.

The experience is something which led him to a career as a firefighter and prepared him for the leadership role he was thrust into during his brother’s recovery period.

“A lot of those firefighters had to make the decision, do I go get my family out, or do I continue getting people who are directly in need,” John said, of the Princeville firefighters, many of whom were affected by the flooding themselves.

In the months since Hurricane Matthew, the Princeville firefighters have spent their time – not only trying to rebuild their fire department from scratch – but their lives as well. Many of them are juggling their professional and personal lives, with some applying for assistance in the hurricane’s aftermath.

“They’re so actively engaged in trying to restart their lives and rebuild,” John said. “Christmas has kind of been something that they’ve kind of not thought about.”

So, the Winston-Salem Fire Department and community thought about it for them. In recent weeks, they have gathered nearly $4,000 worth of gifts – anything from gift cards, to toys, to basketballs – for the firefighters and their families.

It’s something that John – from his own experiences - knows will go a long way.

“It does make you feel like people are thinking about you and care about you and that means a lot,” he said.

The gifts will be transported to Princeville at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

“I’m hoping that we can inspire somebody’s life, to have a positive impact," John said. “That they may one day pay it forward.”