"We're going to stand tall now. Just like 9/11, we will never forget." Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas

Brad Baity was an engineer at Station No. 16, a soft-spoken and smart man who sometimes impressed his buddies with his computer skills.

Baity, 37, had been with the department for nine years, driving Engine 19 for Capt. William "Billy" Hutchison.

"He was always seeking knowledge, trying to learn new things," said Derek Noffsinger, one of his colleagues at the station.

Sometimes, Baity could be found pecking on his laptop computer, doing virtual tours of faraway countries.

"He would talk about how he had just visited the historic sites in Greece and Rome," Noffsinger said.

Baity wasn't one to bend your ear. Amid the bustle and bravado of a typical fire station, he spoke in a soft voice. "In a day's time, Brad wouldn't say 10 words," Chief Rusty Thomas said fondly. But he was an aggressive firefighter. "It didn't make a difference to Brad Baity. Whatever the task was, he did it."

Like many firefighters, Baity had a second job.

For the last three years, he had worked as a stagehand at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, the North Charleston Coliseum and other venues around the area, said Mike Coffey, a member of IATSE Local 333, a union that represents stagehands and technicians.

"Brad was new, but he was always watching and learning," said Coffey, a retired Charleston firefighter himself with more than three decades of service.

Sometimes, he and Baity and another firefighter/stagehand, James "Earl" Drayton, would get together and talk shop. "You get firemen together anywhere, and you're going to start telling stories," Coffey said. "That's the way firemen are."

Drayton also died in Monday's fire.

Baity lived in a quiet neighborhood off the bustle of S.C. Highway 61, where he leaves behind his wife, Heather, and 5-year-old son, Noah.

* * *

Capt. Mike Benke was known to his fellow firefighters at Station No. 16 as a family man and NASCAR fan. He enjoyed laughing but was serious about his job, Capt. Gary Taylor said.

"You're kind of numb about these kinds of things. You're at a loss for words. It's devastating," Taylor said.

Benke, 49, is survived by his wife, Kim, his daughter, Taylor, 14, and his son, Hunter, 10, Capt. Taylor said. They live in Springfield subdivision. Benke always took his son fishing, Taylor said.

Taylor, who also lives in Springfield, said he saw the Benkes often around the neighborhood. Benke was a soccer coach, and his kids were active in sports.

"He's a good fellow. Mike's good people. Good family man," Taylor said.

He said Benke, a Charleston native, was a happy person who was always laughing and cutting up. He never saw Benke angry about anything. "He would do anything for anybody," Taylor said.

Like many firefighters, Benke, a 29-year-veteran of the department, worked part time. He did inventory for Sears, Taylor said.

Engineer Derek Noffsinger recalled Benke as an ambitious, organized person who was a role model for him. Benke had a map book of city streets that included family and career photos. He rode with the book on calls. The inside of his locker was covered with family photos, Noffsinger said.

"He was a good guy, a great guy. All of them were," Noffsinger said.

Chief Rusty Thomas said Benke had relatives who were Charleston firefighters a generation ago. "He knew his job, never complained and was soft-spoken. He was a leader who gave off a quiet confidence. Everybody knew, he knew his job," Thomas said.

Sullivan's Island Town Manager Andy Benke, a first cousin to Benke, recalled him as a dedicated family man. "He was a devoted husband and father and took his responsibility to his family very seriously," Benke said.

Correction (inserted June 21)

A story in Wednesday's editions about Capt. Mike Benke, who died fighting the fire at Sofa Super Store, did not list all his surviving children. They include Holly Gildea, 30, of Charleston. Benke also has two grandchildren, she said. The Post and Courier regrets the error.

* * *

Army veteran. Aspiring pastor. Tae Kwan Do black belt.

Melvin Champaign joined the Charleston Fire Department two years ago.

Before that, a varied career had taken the 46-year-old to the West Coast and back. He leaves behind a teenage daughter and two younger boys in Washington state.

Family from his native James Island spoke of him with glowing admiration.

"He was a man in a million," said his older sister, Gardenia Champaign-Moore. "You had to meet him to believe what this man is made out of."

Champaign worked out of Station No. 16 on Ashley Hall Plantation Road, as did five of the other nine firefighters who died Monday.

Colleagues recognized his fashion sense when he showed up for the first week of fire class wearing a leather hat with a feather in it, Chief Rusty Thomas said. They nicknamed him "Pimp Daddy."

They also noted a penchant for jokingly quoting Bible verse to get through a situation. He wanted to become a pastor. And he once told Thomas, "Chief, I just want to help people."

Relatives Mary and Mikell Fludd raised him on James Island. He went to Fort Johnson High School, where he wrestled and played baseball. Afterward, he joined the Army and resettled in Tacoma, Wash., near Fort Lewis.

He served in the infantry but hurt his back several years ago in an accident involving a military truck. He later worked as a welder.

As a firefighter, he was among the crews who responded to a fatal Dec. 22, 2005, blaze at the Indigo Creek Apartments that killed two young siblings and uprooted six families.

Assistant Engineer Sean Rivers, 30, also remembered lighter times at the fire station, full of card games and pranks.

Champaign continuously worked with youth. His nephew, Tony Moore, remembered him almost like an older bother.

"No matter what the circumstances were, he always had a smile," he said. "We thank him for making us all feel better."

* * *

James "Earl" Allen Drayton, 56, was the oldest of the nine firefighters killed Monday.

A 32-year veteran of the Charleston Fire Department, he was known by generations of city firefighters. They called him "old school" around Station No. 19 in West Ashley.

He is survived by his wife Kimberly, five children, three stepchildren and several grandchildren.

Kimberly Drayton said she last saw her husband Monday morning as he left for work from their Sangaree home near Summerville. The couple had planned to leave for a cruise to Puerto Rico this weekend. "He was all packed," she said. "He was so excited."

Drayton exuded a quiet confidence. His rhythmic walk and talk earned him the nickname "Cool Earl," said his older brother, Herbert Drayton. "I never really heard him raise his voice."

One of eight children, he was born on Charleston's West Side and his family moved to Amherst Street on the city's East Side when he was a child.

After graduating from C.A. Brown High School, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served eight years on active duty. He had a reputation for dressing to the nines and meticulously washing his black Chrysler. He was selected several times to drive Mayor Joe Riley in the city's Christmas Parade.

He was on his third retirement with the department, his wife said. "They kept asking him back. He was going to give it two more years."

Drayton also worked as a stagehand. He painted scenes and built sets for countless local performances. He also wore the battle scars of a seasoned firefighter. He was knocked unconscious by an electrical shock while battling a blaze in 1999. His family says he was once trapped in another fire.

Chief Rusty Thomas worked alongside Drayton as the two were coming up through the ranks in the 1970s. Thomas recalled a call that got a rise out of the low-key Drayton. A hot-water heater had caught fire in a house downtown, and as they headed toward the fire, Drayton got excited and blurted, "Rusty, get this going. That's my house."

* * *

Michael "Frenchie" French was among the youngest firefighters who lost their lives Monday night, but whatever he lacked in experience, he more than made up for in enthusiasm for the job.

French, 27, of Eadyville began volunteering with the Pine Ridge Rural Fire Department outside Summerville and developed a reputation as someone who always could be relied upon to show up when the department's alarm tones sounded.

He previously worked for the St. Andrews Fire Department, but he wanted to jump to the city.

Charleston firefighter Tim Black got to know French well in January 2006, when the two trained together for a city job. Black said his friend talked a lot about his 5-year-old daughter. As for his other interests, Black said, "He always liked to go out boating and just hanging with the guys."

In his short time with the city, French rose to the position of assistant engineer — a relatively quick move. Engineer Derek Noffsinger of Station No. 16 said French was a quiet sort who only opened up after you got to know him. "He was ready to go places in the fire department," Noffsinger said of French. "He took his job seriously."

Black said French was the kind of person willing to fill in on a shift at the last minute.

Jonathan Ryan, a Pine Ridge volunteer and Mount Pleasant firefighter, said French had two passions: "He loved the fire department and he loved his daughter," he said, adding that French recently moved in with his cousin to spend more time with her.

Chief Rusty Thomas said the day French passed his rookie training, "it was the best day of Mikey French's entire life."

Black agreed, saying they worked together to help get through the physical agility and stress test — the most challenging part of that training.

"He was a real go-getter," Black said. "He wouldn't let you quit. He wouldn't let you slow down. He wouldn't let you give up."

* * *

To friends, Fire Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson was a good-natured man and a sports enthusiast who at age 48 still loved to play golf and shoot hoops.

But to fellow firefighters, he was the go-to guy for haircuts. At $2 a pop, it was a skill carried over from his second job at Williams Barber Shop in Goose Creek.

"He was an all-around, super-nice guy, and a super firefighter," Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin said.

Hutchinson worked out of fire stations in downtown and West Ashley, most recently at Station No. 19 on Ashley Hall Plantation Road.

"He never had a harsh word to say about anybody, and you couldn't argue with the guy because he'd agree with you. He was a (practical) joker, like most firefighters tend to be," Garvin said.

"His nickname was 'Lightning,' because he didn't move fast unless there was a fire. We gave him that nickname when he first came on the job here," Garvin said.

Hutchinson played football and baseball for Middleton High School in the mid-1970s, and basketball for the church league and fire department teams.

"We were good," insists Hutchinson's brother, Randy Hutchinson, a former firefighter himself, who played on sports teams with Billy.

Randy last saw his brother a few weekends ago, when they went jet-skiing.

He said Billy was married to Phyllis Hutchinson and had three children, including twin daughters. He had been with the Charleston Fire Department for 30 years.

Garvin said he and Hutchinson passed each other in the doorway of the Sofa Super Store on Monday shortly before the roof collapsed, killing Hutchinson and eight other firefighters.

"Billy passed by me when he was going in and I was coming out," said Garvin, who had already made three trips into the building.

"He asked me, 'Where is it chief,' and I told him 'all the way to the end and to the right'."

That was the last time Garvin saw him.

* * *

Mark Kelsey had a loud voice described as the hardest thing in the Ashley River Fire Department station.

He was a gruff retired Navy veteran who told it like it is. He'd come into the station, set his walkie-talkie into the community room charger and ask who hadn't made his pot of coffee. And the coffee better be made with one large scoop, no more.

"He was a very aggressive person, kept you straight," said Ashley River Capt. Wayne Sammons.It was a gruff front of a kind man who took rookies under his wing and drilled them until they had it down.

He left the firefighters at Ashley River with their voices choking as they talked about him.

Kelsey, 40, was an engineer and a 12 1/2-year veteran with the city of Charleston Fire Department. Monday night, he was acting captain as the trucks drove to the Sofa Super Store blaze just down Savannah Highway from their Station No. 10.

He was a captain working part time with the Ashley River Fire District, joining 15 1/2 years ago when the Charleston Naval Base closed. Born in Indiana, he had come to Charleston with the Navy and never left.

He had a teenage son. His passion was his custom motorcycle. He rode the chopper rain or shine. Short and stocky, he kept his blond hair cut short and didn't like to dress up in suit and tie for the station Christmas party. He lived to fight fires.

"If there was a fire, he was there. He always wanted to be the first one in," Sammons said.

Kelsey refused an office in the Ashley River station, pointed to the housekeeping supply closet where he kept inventory and said that was his office. "He said an office closes him up, and he didn't want to be closed up," Sammons said.

On Tuesday, an Ashley River firefighter took Kelsey's son to the Savannah Highway station. The son wanted to see where his dad worked.

And at the Ashley River station, Fire Marshal Joe Friend stood in the community room staring at the coffee pot. "I was waiting for that 'pot of coffee.' I was waiting for him to come in," Friend said. "I can't tell you how I'm going to miss him."

* * *

When Capt. Louis Mulkey wasn't on duty at Coming Street Station 15, he often was coaching athletes at Summerville High School.

Mulkey, 34, lived and breathed Green Wave sports, and firefighters openly joked that the 1991 Summerville graduate should quit fighting fires and succeed football coach John McKissick, said Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.

Mulkey was a coach for the school's junior varsity football and basketball teams.

McKissick said Mulkey would do anything for students. He always checked athletes' report cards and often accompanied students on recruiting trips.

"We lost a good guy, a good friend, a good citizen and a good all-around guy," McKissick said.

On Tuesday, Summerville athletes and fellow firefighters surrounded the home of Mulkey's parents, Ann and Mike Mulkey.

Capt. Jake Jenkins of Station No. 15 said Mulkey was known for his competitiveness. He wanted to win, but he always looked out for his team.

"He was the bravest of the bravest," Jenkins said.

Mulkey's mother phoned her son just before he was called to the fire scene Monday. As news came out about the fire, she saw him on television.

"Well, he's fine," she said to herself.

And that's what she told people who called asking about her son, until an emergency-services chaplain called her to Station 11 in West Ashley.

Mulkey had 11 1/2 years of firefighting experience and once saved a police officer who had collapsed in the line of duty.

Mulkey leaves behind his mother and father; his wife, Lauren, of West Ashley, and a brother, Wayne, of Florida.

Mulkey's body was among the last recovered Tuesday.

"We never dreamed he would be a firefighter. One day he just took the job. He loves it," Ann Mulkey said, holding a tissue to her eyes. "That was his love."

* * *

Brandon Thompson, 27, had been a volunteer at the Pine Ridge Rural Fire Department since he was a teenager but had recently told the guys they probably wouldn't see him around the station as much because he was preparing for a fall wedding.

Thompson and Rachel Sheridan were to be married Oct. 7 on Folly Beach. They'd already sent out "save the date" cards. Thompson's chief at Pine Ridge, Ben Waring, was to be the best man.

Thompson had been a Charleston firefighter for four years. He had started his career in the fire service at the age of 14. "He had an older brother that was in it and he just kinda tagged along. That's what he decided to do with his career," Waring said.

Thompson was too young to fight fires, but he could go along with the Pine Ridge crews to watch and learn, roll hoses and fetch tools.

He loved firefighting so much that he was known to cut class in high school and go see the action, Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said.

Thompson worked for the Summerville Fire Department before he joined Charleston, Thomas said. He broke his leg while off-duty last year, so Thomas gave him a job working in the mechanic shop and testing hydrants.

Thompson, also a captain with Pine Ridge, usually stopped by the Myers Road station in Summerville two or three times a week, Waring said.

The two spoke by phone Monday morning, mostly about how Thompson needed some time off for his wedding preparations. Thompson was already on his shift at Station No. 10 off Savannah Highway, known to firefighters as the Five and Dime because it's the home of Ladder 5 and Engine 10.

Full-time Mount Pleasant firefighter and Pine Ridge volunteer Jonathan Ryan said Thompson was an aggressive firefighter who would have seen Monday night's fire as "just another day on the job. He had the skin of an alligator. He wasn't scared of anything."

* * *

Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten released the names of the nine firemen who died Monday night in what has been called the worst loss of life for firefighters since 9/11.

Engineer Brad Baity, 37, 9 years of service

Capt. Mike Benke, 49, 29 years of service

Firefighter Melvin Champaign, 46, 2 years of service

Firefighter James 'Earl' Drayton, 56, 32 years of service

Assistant Engineer Michael French, 27, 1 1/2 years of service

Capt. William 'Billy' Hutchinson, 48, 30 years of service

Engineer Mark Kelsey, 40, 12 1/2 years of service

Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34, 11 1/2 years of service

Firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27, 4 years of service