CAMDEN COUNTY, GA -- "It was hard to sleep last night," Alice Mack told First Coast News on Friday, "because I keep seeing that fire and hearing her voice when she was hollering for help."
Alice was referring to neighbor Marcia Butler. Only a wood fence separates her and husband Terry's backyard in Woodbine from a property where a house fire killed Marcia Butler's six-year-old grandson Anthony Green and her sister Myra Butler, 52. The pre-dawn fire Thursday destroyed two houses in close proximity. The Macks and the Butlers were neighbors for more than 20 years.
"It was about 6 o'clock and I heard a scream," she said. "It was just saying, 'Somebody help me. Please help me.'"
Terry Mack picked up the story from there.
"My wife woke me up. We were in the bed asleep and she said it sounded like she heard somebody calling for help.
"And as soon as I got out of my bed and looked out the window, I saw the fire."
Terry said he urged Alice to call 9-1-1 while he bolted out of the house, around the fence and across a bramble of debris from Hurricane Irma and existing undergrowth, scraping himself along the way, to the Butlers' home at 95 Ben Butler Lane. Their home was one of two that burned.
"[Terry] jumped on top of the house, on both houses," Alice said.
"So I could see, could I help anybody if I could get in," Terry continued.
He said the first floor was engulfed but he had hoped he could get in and rescue the boy and his aunt. The boy's grandmother, Marcia Butler, was able to escape the flames. Terry's attempt was unsuccessful and he had to retreat. All the while, he said, firefighters still hadn't arrived despite that the nearest station was in Woodbine, just 2.2 miles away. In fact, he said, it would be a while.
"From the time that I got off the roof, 15 minutes."
Camden County Fire and Rescue has been the subject of scrutiny in recent months, including investigations by First Coast News focusing most heavily on equipment reliability and maintenance. Even some former firefighters have leveled criticism. After Thursday's tragedy, the Macks were making observations of their own.
"To me, they were a little bit confused because it was so intense," Alice said.
"When I was assisting [Marcia Butler], one of the firefighters came up to me and asked 'Is there anyone in the house?' And that was about 15 minutes [after firefighters had arrived]. 'Yes, someone's in the house!'"
"To me they didn't do it right ... because they were confused," she said. "I guess they kind of panicked. And then, like, the water wasn't working, and then finally they got the water working."
The couple says that was at least 25 minutes after they'd called 9-1-1. Terry said only one of the two trucks first at the scene appeared to be equipped to pump water, but not positioned for the task.
"They never even used it because on the mechanical side where you pull the levers and stuff to disperse the water, it was the one in the ditch," he said. "And you couldn't comfortably get over there because it was leaning too far in the ditch."
Despite being only a few minutes away from Firehouse No. 11 in the center of Woodbine, Ben Butler Lane is unpaved and somewhat remote. Terry Mack believes firefighters should have known to bring water in a tanker truck.
"Because they were hooking up hoses and things, and I don't know why that wouldn't drive a truck right up in the lane, because there wasn't anybody in the lane," Terry said.
For his part, Terry Mack didn't want to make accusations. He even stated that a speedier arrival by firefighters wouldn't have saved Anthony Green and Myra Butler. But he was also equally convinced that the second house could have been spared.
"These guys were taking sections of hose off a truck, hooking them together for almost 250, 300 yards, and all this time there wasn't any water going on the house," Mack said.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but the Terry Mack said Marcia Butler, the woman who survived, told him her family was still without power since Hurricane Irma and were using candles for light. Calls to County Administrator Steve Howard and fire chief Mark Crews on Friday were not returned. Efforts to reach relatives of the deceased were also unsuccessful.