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More than 10,000 gather to pay respects

Firefighters representing at least 700 agencies join mourners at community service for the 9 fallen

The Post and Courier
Saturday, June 23, 2007

The caskets of the firefighters killed in the Sofa Super Store fire are loaded into hearses Friday after the memorial service at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Alan Hawes

The caskets of the firefighters killed in the Sofa Super Store fire are loaded into hearses Friday after the memorial service at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Firefighters representing at least 700 agencies join mourners at community service for the 9 fallen

Bagpipes, prayers, a ringing memorial bell.

As the families of nine Charleston firefighters walked toward caskets at the front of North Charleston Coliseum on Friday, walls of crisp blue blazers stood statue-still, hands fixed in salute.

Then somehow, in the middle of a memorial service for the men who died Monday at the Sofa Super Store fire in West Ashley, the crowd broke into laughter. It came when Fire Chief Rusty Thomas shared good memories of each of his fallen men.

In a department where "everybody knows everybody," Thomas had hired six of the nine fallen firefighters, and promoted each one to their ranks.

"This is how Rusty Thomas is going to remember each one of them," he said.

Capt. Michael Benke, "a go-getter after 29 years on the job."

Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson III, who earned the nickname "lightning" because "lightning would have to strike around him to get him to move." Yet when the alarm rang, Hutchinson went right to work.

Capt. Louis Mulkey, a coach and substitute teacher at Summerville High School.

Engineer Brad Baity, so quiet, he "would work for 24 hours and not say 10 words."

Engineer Mark Kelsey, "all he wanted to do was fight fires."

Assistant Engineer Michael French, who seemed to have enlisted the entire department's help to get hired a year and a half ago: "Every time I'd see somebody, they'd say, 'Why don't you hire Michael French?' "

Sharp-dressed Firefighter Melvin Champaign, who told Thomas during a job interview two years ago, "Chief, I just want to help people."

Firefighter James "Earl" Allen Drayton, who worked alongside Thomas at the Cannon Street fire station in the late 1970s. Responding to a call early one morning, Drayton told Thomas to hurry up; the address they were rushing to was Drayton's house.

Firefighter Brandon Thompson, whose father waited at the scene Monday until his son came out of the building. Thompson's brother escorted the remains out.

"That's the kind of memories and that's the kind of relationship that I have with every single one of these guys and every single one of these guys back there that belong to me," he said, pointing to the Charleston firefighters in the crowd.

Early in the speech, he thanked the city where four generations of his family have served the fire department.

"The outpouring of support this week has been awesome and we thank you more than you'll ever know."

The South Carolina Firefighters Association coordinated the memorial, which lasted more than two hours. It drew more than 10,000 people, including firefighters from at least 700 agencies in the United States and Canada.

Funeral arrangements

Funeral arrangements and visitation information has been set for the nine Charleston firefighters who lost their lives Monday battling the fire at a West Ashley furniture store:

Capt. Mike Benke

Funeral: 11 a.m. today, Palmetto Community Church, 1965 Bees Ferry Road

Burial: Live Oak Cemetery

Firefighter James "Earl" Allen Drayton

Funeral: 1 p.m. today; Joshua Baptist Church, 2482 Faber St.

Burial: Payne Memorial Cemetery

Engineer Brad Baity

Funeral: 3 p.m. today, Charleston Baptist Church, 13 San Miguel Road

Burial: Live Oak Cemetery

Firefighter Brandon Thompson

Funeral: 6 p.m. today, Stratford High School gymnasium

Burial: Plantation Memorial Gardens

Assistant Engineer Michael French

Viewing: 5-7 p.m. today, Dial-Murray Funeral Home, 300 W. Main St., Moncks Corner

Funeral: 2 p.m. Sunday, Berkeley High School, Moncks Corner

Burial: Berkeley Memorial Gardens

Capt. Louis Mulkey

Viewing: Noon-4 p.m. today, Dyal Funeral Home, 303 S. Main St, Summerville

Memorial: 6 p.m. today, Summerville High School's Memorial Stadium

Graveside service: 5 p.m. Sunday, Summerville Cemetery

Firefighter Melvin Champaign

Funeral: Noon Monday, Emanuel Baptist Church, 1440 Folly Road

Burial: Stem Point Cemetery (off Folly Road)

Engineer Mark Kelsey

Viewing: 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday, Washington High School auditorium, Washington, Ind.

Funeral: Tuesday after the viewing

Burial: Sugarland Memorial Gardens

Four from Ohio drove overnight to reach the event about 6:30 a.m. Colleagues from Toronto paid $1,800 each from their own pockets to fly down. Indianapolis firefighters sang the national anthem at the memorial.

Hundreds attended from New York City's 15,000-member department and the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums played during the service. New York also lost a firefighter on duty this week, a 23-year-old who fell from four-story apartment building fighting a fire in Brooklyn.

Speakers included Charleston's mayor, the governor and a cabinet-level federal official. Mayor Joe Riley called the nine firefighters "public servants of the highest order" who will enter the city's history pages.

"They did what they and every firefighter is prepared to do every day they put on their badge — to risk their life, and if necessary, to give their life to make the community safer," Riley said.

"They're humble," he said, "so very humble."

Gov. Mark Sanford said words are an incomplete substitute for the emotion he felt, "And yet it's what some of us are left with.

"We grieve for you, we grieve with you, and above all else," he said, "we lift you up in prayer."

Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff expressed condolences and delivered a message from President Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

The memorial procession included about 250 firetrucks. They went by stations that lost men and passed the fire scene on Savannah Highway en route to the coliseum.

The two firetrucks lined up at the beginning were Charleston Engines 16 and 19 from Fire Station No. 16 on Ashley Hall Plantation Road, where six of the nine firefighters were lost.

George Barreiro of the Miami Beach Fire Department made the nine-hour drive to join the procession and snapped photographs just before it started.

"The fire department is a long tradition of being a brotherhood," he said. "Whether you're in Seattle or Canada or Raleigh, we all unite."

Barreiro said he had a lump in his throat because he could put himself in the shoes of Charleston firefighters.

"It could be any of us," he said. "That's what hits home."

It took more than 15 minutes for trucks, sport utility vehicles and other cars from across South Carolina and the nation to snake by Charleston's Station 15 on Coming Street, where Capt. Louis Mulkey worked.

Troy Thomas was one of nine Mount Pleasant firefighters who manned the Coming Street station so its regular crew could attend the memorial service. Thomas knew a few of the victims, including Mulkey.

After the procession went by, several dozen onlookers spontaneously formed a line to hug and shake hands with the Mount Pleasant firefighters who stood at attention during the procession.

"It's touching when you sit here and see trucks from Charlotte and Miami," Thomas said. "It sinks in more and more."

At the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lined both sides of the sidewalk memorial. The agents removed their hard hats and held them over their hearts.

Neighbors like Yvonne Bradley also crowded the sidewalk. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

Bradley lives in the neighborhood and was at the fire Monday night.

She saw the firefighters rush in. Then she watched the building go up in flames and smoke. "I knew they weren't coming out," she said.

Frances Smith also lives nearby and came to watch the procession out of respect. She said she used to shop at the store. "I have a sofa in my living room that I bought there and I can't even look at it without thinking about the fire," she said. "It's awful."

Memorial broadcast

ETV will rebroadcast the Charleston Firefighters Memorial Service on Sunday at 11 a.m.

Also, ETV's South Carolina Channel will rebroadcast the service at 1 p.m. Sunday, 9 p.m. Wednesday and 12:30 p.m. July 4.

On the Montague Avenue side of the coliseum, hundreds of fire honor guard members from across the country and Canada formed two lines and stood at attention as the families of the nine firefighters passed.

Mikal Orr, from Amarillo Fire Department in Texas, said they came to do whatever was needed.

"We lost one of our guys in April of 2004," Orr said. "It's an honor for us to get to come."

At times, honor guard members would momentarily step back, taking off their caps to wipe the sweat from their brows, other times to wipe tears.

Diane Knich, Jessica Johnson, Robert Behre and Andy Paras contributed to this report.

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This article has  6 comment(s)

Posted by huntress87 on June 23, 2007 at 1:55 a.m. (Suggest removal)

being from this small town, which is growing leaps and bounds, thank you for those who came to support our men and women of the CCFD :) our gracious thanks is given to each.. Our hearts may be heavy, but as chief Rusty said, we will cary on.. love and prayers surround you all as you travel home...

Posted by folkdancing on June 23, 2007 at 9:36 a.m. (Suggest removal)

As a native Charlestonian, I stand in awe of the honorable firefighters who gave so selflessly in the service of our community. As many others have noted this week, we often take the contributions of those around us for granted. Then events like the ones we've seen and experienced this past week bring our thoughts into sharp focus the importance of each individual. Godspeed to the Charleston Nine!

In addition to honoring our brave firefighters and offering my prayers for their families, colleagues, and friends, I'd also like to offer my sympathy and thoughts to Mr. Goldstein and the employees of Sofa Super Store. Several years ago, I shopped at the Savannah Highway location for a futon for my college-aged daughter's apartment. Each associate was courteous and helpful as my daughter and I went through the ordering and purchasing process.

My prayers are that all our Charleston firefighters and their families as well as Mr. Goldstein and the members of the Sofa Super Store family find comfort knowing their contributions are appreciated!

Charleston, SC

Posted by sdoss7711 on June 23, 2007 at 3:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I did not know any of the firefighters who lost their lives. I live in San Antonio, Texas and heard about it, like many others on the nightly TV news. To all who lost a loved one, I offer my sincere condolences. I will not say that I know how you feel, because I don't. I hope that God will strengthen you and your families as you go through this time of grief and the days ahead. Stay strong and look above as your loved ones look down on you. There are nine more angels watching over Charleston now.

Posted by tarheel on June 23, 2007 at 3:48 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The public memorial service was absolutely incredible and a beautiful tribute to the brave fireman, the entire Charleston Fire Department,and fireman across the country. The singing was amazing, especially Angels Above (James Smith, Wilson NC), the Star Spangled Banner (Indianapolis Fire Dept) and How Great They Are (Seacoast Church Choir). Prayers and support for the department and family & friends of the BRAVE NINE who will NEVER be forgotten. I accept Chief Rusty Smith's challenge.

My husband is from Charleston, and we have many family in the area and visit often. We consider Charleston home.

Posted by DHOUSE1967 on June 23, 2007 at 5:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am not from Charleston . However anytime we lose our brother or sister firefighters it saddens the Fire Service. It is with my deepest sympathy that I send this comment. I wish my Sympathy to both the Firefighter Families and those of the Charleston Fire Department.

Delmar R. House
Fire Prevention Director
West Carthage Fire Department
West Carthage, N.Y.

Posted by tommedic on June 23, 2007 at 9:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

As a former resident of Charleston and Johns Island, I have a feeling of family with all involved. As a Paramedic in Wilmington, NC, I understand the family atmosphere that is present in the emergency services. My hat goes off to Chief Rusty Thomas. He should be the national example of what a Fire Chief should be. His relationship with his men and women goes beyond what we usually see, even in the public service realm. I was most impressed by the fact that individuals would retire and then return to work for this team and this leader.
May God bless each and everyone of the Charleston Fire Dept, especially during this trying time. My prayers go to the families as well. The residents of Charleton should be proud to acknowledge these men and women who daily stand ready to sacrifice themselves for the citizens. I know that I speak for all my fellow EMS workers, here and across the country when I say, using a Marine Corps term, "Semper Fi" - Always faithful.. This describes you all. May God be with you...

Thomas Simpson
HM1 USN Retired

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