Sometimes, in the worst situations, when lives are in the balance, strangers can form bonds as strong and deep as those that bind families together.
Rusty Prater and his wife, Debra, didn't know Shannon and Jennifer Harrill and their daughter Jessika Ward before that cold, rainy morning the Harrills saved the Praters' lives, and they became "forever family."
Driving along Martintown Road about 5 a.m. Dec. 29, coming from Greenville to Doctors Hospital to see their newborn granddaughter, the Harrills saw the Praters' house in flames and stopped to help.
Others drove past, but "the right one stopped," Rusty Prater said.
Shannon Harrill says it was Divine Providence.
At the moment the Harrills turned into their driveway, the Praters were at the back of the house, on their first-floor roof, choking from smoke inhalation, burned and cut from their escape through a tiny second-floor bathroom window, disoriented and looking for a way down without jumping.
They hadn't heard Jessika Ward frantically blowing the Harrills' car horn, or Shannon Harrill's shouts as he circled the house, looking for the people he hoped had somehow gotten out. He'd seen four cars in the driveway and knew there had to be people inside.
"It was kind of like a dream," Harrill said. "I couldn't move fast enough or yell loud enough."
But Rusty Prater soon heard him and called back: "There's a ladder in my shed!"
Harrill, facing the back of the house, could see what the Praters couldn't - that the fire was raging ever higher behind them and they were about to be engulfed by waves of impenetrable, strangling smoke.
Harrill begged them to jump, but the Praters - grandparents themselves - didn't think they could, so Harrill dashed for the shed, slipping and falling on wet grass, injuring his shoulder.
At first he couldn't find the ladder and came back to shout again at Rusty and Debra to jump.
"You could tell from his voice he was starting to panic," Rusty said.
He went back to the shed, where his daughter Jessika had found the ladder.
They quickly helped the Praters off the roof and began tending to Debra, who had a serious gash on one leg and burns on the other.
Rusty lingered in the yard for a moment, he said, savoring the realization that he and Debra would not die this day after all. For a second or two, when the couple first tried to get out of the house by going downstairs and found the way blocked by flames, he had almost faltered.
He had looked at Debra and said, "This is how we're going to die."
But instinct, the will to live, or maybe Divine Providence gave him "strength you can't believe" and he turned, guiding Debra back up the stairs and literally pulling her through that little window to the roof.
Now, after what had been about 15 minutes but seemed like hours, they were safe and he was ecstatic "just to feel the grass between my toes."
The Praters' son, Nicholas, lives next door and had been awakened by the commotion. When he saw his parents' house ablaze, he was sure they had perished, Rusty said.
Then he saw them.
"That was sweet relief, seeing his face when he saw his mom and dad," said Jennifer Harrill.
Jennifer had called 911 when the Harrills first spotted the fire and by then ambulances and firefighters were arriving, and the Praters were hurried off for medical treatment. The Harrills, soaked by the rain and smelling of smoke, went on their way to meet their new granddaughter.
Only later would the two families realize they all had ended up at Doctors Hospital.
Rusty was giving a TV interview when Shannon, whose hurt shoulder had been treated in the emergency room, walked by.
"There's the guy who saved my life," Rusty exclaimed.
Over the next three days, the extended families of the Praters and Harrills would meet, talk, hug one another and take turns holding the new baby, Arabelle Verginio, whose mother, Lauren Verginio, is Jessika Ward's twin.
"We got to spend time with (Debra), got to meet her whole family," Jennifer Harrill said. "What a great group of people."
Lauren Verginio and Debra Prater were released from the hospital on the same day.
In the time since, the families have stayed in touch and consider each other "forever family," Debra Prater said. Both families eagerly await the day Arabelle is old enough to ask about what happened the day she was born.
The Praters and Harrills both say they are amazed at how the "Westside" community of Edgefield County has rallied around the Praters, helping them in every way they can.
Right now, for example, they are living in a cabin on the property of one of those neighbors. They're getting ready to rebuild on the same spot.
"Goodness has outweighed badness," Rusty Prater said.
Debra said they want to find ways to pay back the kindness.
"We've always tried to help other people," she said, "but after this, we're going to step up even more."
Reach James Folker at (706) 823-3338 or email@example.com.