Effingham County firefighters are mourning the loss of one of their own.
The body of veteran firefighter James Neil Andrews was pulled from the Ogeechee River near Morgan’s River Bridge on the Bryan-Chatham county line Sunday night after he fell into the water while fishing with his 10-year-old son.
“It doesn’t seem real,” said Effingham Fire and Rescue Chief Val Ashcraft. “A lot of us share the same opinion. We think we’re going to wake up from a real bad dream.”
Andrews, who went by Neil, and his son were in a boat on the Ogeechee when Andrews fell into the water. His son steered the boat back to shore and summoned help.
A search was started around 8 p.m. and search team members, including those from Effingham’s own search unit, found Andrews’ body around 9 p.m. Departments from Bryan, Effingham and Chatham counties, including the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department’s Aviation and Marine Patrol units, were called into help.
“The men who work with him everyday were there,” Ashcraft said. “We wanted to find him and bring him home. It breaks my heart.”
Andrews had been a full-time firefighter for three years and had been a volunteer for several years before joining full-time. He had worked in construction before becoming a firefighter and his knowledge was often put to use in building training areas and other needed buildings for the fire department.
“Neil was very talented and very skilled,” Ashcraft said. “He helped us time and time again. He laid block and poured concrete. He was very good at this, and he didn’t have a mean word to say.”
Andrews also was one of the department’s most skilled in wilderness search and rescue techniques, and he, along with several others, took part in two training exercises Saturday.
“He had been on vacation all week and went to training on the weekend,” Ashcraft said. “He and the other guys are real good at that and it has evolved into other search disciplines.”
Andrews’ body has been sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic lab for an autopsy to determine the cause of death. The boy reported his father became ill before falling into the river.
“His son was really instrumental in recovering his dad,” Ashcraft said.
Because of the pending autopsy at the state lab, funeral arrangements have not been completed.
Andrews also leaves behind a wife and another child and has a large extended family in the area. Ashcraft said he and his fellow firefighters would do what they could for the family members in their time of grief and sorrow.
“We consider ourselves to be part of the extended family,” he said of the fire department. “You live and work with someone so long, they become part of the family.”