Our brother, our friend

Published 11:12 pm Wednesday, April 8, 2020

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Tryon mourning sudden loss of fire chief Tank Waters

TRYON—He never met a stranger and told everyone he loved them because he truly did. And there wasn’t any hug quite like a hug from “Tank.” 

Many near and far are mourning the loss of their brother and friend, Tryon’s Fire Chief, James “Tank” Waters, 40, who died unexpectedly on Tuesday. 

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Waters was a local hero and likely nobody loved this community the way he did. 

He was the boots on the ground. The guy who everyone knew, without a doubt, would literally walk into a fire to save them. 

Many people remember him as a boy in his grandparents’ stores, Cowan’s Grocery and Hardware in downtown Tryon. Others know him from his service to the community and many children fondly referred to him as “Uncle Tank.” 

Local emergency service officials say they knew Waters would grow up to be a firefighter, as he used to chase the fire trucks on his bicycle to make it to a scene before he was even old enough to drive. 

Waters stepped up as fire chief after the town lost former Chief Geoffrey Tennant last year unexpectedly. 

“He was always the first to suit up and the last to suit down,” said Tryon Town Manager Zach Ollis. “He fought tooth and nail for the citizens of this county. He never stopped.” 

Waters was not just a leader but a true friend and brother to so many. He had a smile that would light up a room and was known to joke around a bit too. 

Many community members have taken to social media to remember Waters since the news of his death, and town and area emergency service workers escorted him from St. Luke’s to McFarland Funeral Chapel Tuesday evening, mere hours after his death to honor him. 

Tryon Police Chief Jeff Arrowood said this is such a loss for so many. 

“Everybody treated him as family because that is how he treated you,” Arrowood said. “Tank was the boots on the ground guy that would get stuff done. He was the guy you were going to follow into the house fire.” 

He said Tryon has had a rough couple of years, with a tornado and mudslides that took lives and then losing Tennant. 

“But Tank jumped in and pulled the fire department ahead,” Arrowood said. “We’re all just stunned.” 

Polk County Sheriff Tim Wright said he considered Waters a very close friend, if not a brother, saying that Waters was so dedicated to helping people and this community. 

“He was larger than life,” Wright said. “I always enjoyed the talks and the fellowship. I’m basically speechless. It’s something I just can’t wrap my head around. He was a good friend and I’ll miss him.” 

Tryon Mayor Alan Peoples said he sees Waters just as he saw him a few days ago, “Big, bold and full of life.” 

Peoples said he can hear him saying, ‘hello mayor, what can I do for you?’

Peoples said he sees Tank at Cowan’s; he sees James as a student in his middle school class; he sees him throwing the shot put on the Polk County Junior Olympics team; he sees him responding as a deputy; responding to a fire and suffering when the team could not save the structure. 

“I see Tank rise to the occasion and become our new Tryon Fire Chief; and I see the man, Tank, who became a leader who was admired, respected and loved.” 

Polk County Manager Marche Pittman said Waters had so much passion for the job and about the people he was serving. 

“There were times when I personally witnessed him sacrificing himself to help someone, no matter what the outcome could have been for him,” Pittman said. “When his community felt pain, he hurt, when his community rejoiced, he rejoiced. He was the embodiment of a servant leader, never asking anything of his community or his people that he wouldn’t have done himself. I think it is enough to say that Tank was a great public servant, loving his community as his own family. We have lost a great family member today.” 

Former Tryon Fire Chief Joey Davis said Tank was a close friend, indeed like a brother he never had. 

“Tank was also the brother, and co-worker, that I went to battle with day in and day out for years at Tryon,” Davis said. “We worked together on thousands of incidents in Polk County and he was always the one person that I knew would have my back on a fire scene and do whatever it was I needed to accomplish a particular task at an incident. At the end of the day, Tank simply had a desire to ride on a fire truck and serve his community. The fact that I got to do that with him is something that I’ll always cherish.” 

Davis said people will always question how to process tragic situations but people get through them by leaning on each other. 

“Tank is a guy who loved his family, his friends and his community,” Davis said. “I’d hope everyone reflects on him that way, and when they reflect on some interaction they’ve had with Tank I’m confident it will bring a smile to their face. How could it not?” 

Polk County Emergency Management Director and Fire Marshal Bobby Arledge said words cannot do justice for what Waters meant to him and the community. 

“Growing up with him I knew he wanted to be a firefighter and I knew he had the mindset he was going to do it,” Arledge said. 

Arledge said he has a lot of fond memories of Tank over the years, including at his wedding and at birthday parties, “and I always knew that if I needed anything at all he would be there. He would always end a phone call or a text message saying, ‘if you need anything at all just give me a call.’” 

Arledge said there will never be another person like Tank. 

“His smile would brighten a room and he would make a bad day better with a fist bump or a hug,” Arledge said. “He was more than a friend to me, he was a brother and I will truly miss him. This world has lost a great man. Rest easy my brother, we will take it from here.” 

Ollis said the loss of Waters is hard to think about because he was just one of those larger than life figures. 

“He had the heart of a lion,” Ollis said. “The thing that hurts the most is knowing all the young men and women at the station that looked up to him and that he will not get to see the fruits of his labor. He was the one that pushed them to be better than they could ever be.” 

Ollis said he doesn’t think Tryon could have had a better spokesman or a better statesman than Tank. 

“This is a guy who would have laid his life down for anyone at any given time,” Ollis said. “I hate this has happened and I pray for his family and I pray for his friends. I hope we can reflect on how bright his candle burned for his short amount of time.”