Gulfport fireman a "reluctant hero"

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - By Steve Phillips – bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Gulfport firefighter Tot Burkhalter doesn't consider himself a hero. But others are using the word after Burkhalter jumped into frigid waters at the Port of Gulfport to help rescue a worker who'd fallen off the west pier on Monday.

Burkhalter didn't hesitate to jump into the water to help save the man from drowning.  He calls it part of the job. But the veteran fireman also knows what it's like to be rescued from danger.

"Never had a day gone by that I didn't enjoy going to work," said Tot Burkhalter, as he checked the fire gear at Success fire station in Harrison County.

Burkhalter works part time for Harrison County fire services. He's a full time City of Gulfport firefighter and was on duty at Central Station Monday when the call came in about a possible drowning. A port worker had fallen off the west pier.

"His co workers had tried to throw everything they could to get him to hang onto it, to keep him from drifting underneath the pier. They wasn't going to give up. Anything from electric cords, to ropes, to a life ring. They had it down there for him," Burkhalter recalled.

Passing time was the biggest enemy with the water temperature at a bone chilling 48 degrees.

As a tugboat operator positioned his vessel to assist, Burkhalter jumped in the water to help the struggling man.

"So, I had my life jacket on and I was tied off. And I just needed a couple minutes to get in that water and get something wrapped around him so they would be able to get him aboard the boat," said the fireman.

Burkhalter never hesitated to jump into the water and help save the man. His 22 years of firefighting experience and training kicked in, along with that ever-present desire to help others.

"I didn't think much about it. I just knew what needed to be done.  And once we got a strap wrapped around him, I heard one of the guys say, 'The Coast Guard is here.' And I knew then we were gonna get this guy," he said.

Rewind 10 years ago and it was Tot Burkhalter who needed a rescue. It was a raging fire at Ladner's Bootery downtown.

"We got ourselves deep into a fire and some of the comrades that I work with, we had gotten burned. And my guys pulled me out," said Burkhalter.

Despite that harrowing experience, he never had a second thought of continuing the career he loves. And this week, it was his turn to save someone else's life.

"It's just a good feeling when there's people out there that just appreciate you for your job. They know that's what you're there for. It's nice," said the reluctant hero.

The man who was rescued from the water is expected to make a full recovery.

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