'Fearless' Charleston firefighters 'will never be forgotten,' Riley says

Two-by-two, Charleston firefighters waded through the belly of the burning furniture store. Swirling black smoke choked the air around them and swallowed all light.

Sofas, chairs and bedding blocked their path at every turn. Darkness and confusion enveloped the men. As the blaze turned deadly, calls for help crackled over the fire department's radios. One man prayed. From another: "Tell my wife I love her."

Their tour of duty had come to an end. Nine lives. Gone.

The deaths Monday night at the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway marked the nation's worst single loss of firefighters since 9/11, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In Charleston, which had not lost a firefighter in the line of duty since 1965, the loss was like a punch to the heart.

"Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying out their duties," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said. "These people will never be forgotten."

The fallen were Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Engineer Mark Kelsey, 40; Engineer Brad Baity, 37; Assistant Engineer Michael "Frenchie" French, 27; Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, 56; Firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27; and Firefighter Melvin Champaign, 46.

They were more than men in uniform, they were members of the community they served. One was a devoted family man who loved to take his son fishing. Another was a seasoned veteran, a mentor to his younger colleagues. A third was a part-time barber who gave his firefighting "brothers" haircuts for $2 a head.

"I've just lost nine of my best friends," Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said, struggling to hold his emotions in check.

No arson is suspected, Riley said, but the State Law Enforcement Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the fire's cause and origin.

Charleston fire officials said the blaze started in an outdoor trash bin and quickly engulfed the store and its adjacent warehouse.

The Sofa Super Store didn't have a sprinkler system, which likely would have slowed the blaze, authorities said.

Condolences and messages of support poured in from around the country. The White House released a statement from President Bush mourning the "devastating loss of some of America's bravest."

"Our prayers are with the families and friends of nine firefighters from Charleston, South Carolina, who selflessly gave their own lives to protect their community," Bush said.

"These firefighters were true heroes who demonstrated great skill and courage. Their unwavering commitment to their neighbors and to the city of Charleston is an inspiration to all Americans."

The blaze started about 7 p.m. Monday. As some firefighters attacked the trash-bin fire, 13 more entered the showroom to check for fire inside.

They found none, Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin said.

Then the fire spread to a porch and, suddenly, blew open the back door to the showroom. "We tried to close the door but we couldn't," Garvin said.

Firefighters quickly donned their air masks and started bringing in hose lines to attack the blaze from within. But they didn't stand a chance, Garvin said.

Once inside, the fire rapidly ignited sofa and chair material near the back door. A rolling ball of fire and gas raced toward the front of the building, the combustible furniture fueling its momentum. Flames and smoke belched into the humid Lowcountry night, creating what one witness described as 30-foot tornado of flames. Hot ash pelted hundreds of onlookers.

Capt. Ralph Linderman of the St. Andrews Fire Department said the blaze was the hottest he could recall in three decades of firefighting. "That fire bent steel like a wet noodle," he said.

Four employees were in the store when the fire started. Two firefighters freed one worker who was trapped in a repair workshop near the building's east side by cutting a hole in the side of the metal building.

Meanwhile, thick, black smoke was filling the showroom, leaving firefighters disoriented as they struggled to find their way through a jumble of sofas, beds and other furniture. "Everything just went bad at one time," Thomas said. "Trying to see with all that furniture in the store and trying to get out, it just didn't happen."

Charleston Fire Capt. Jake Jenkins said the firefighters were spread out in teams when the roof — a steel truss system — collapsed. Other crews fought to get inside the building and rescue the fallen, but the conditions were too bad, he said.

"They tried everything they could to find a door to open, find a window, find some way to get to downed firefighters," said Pete Rogers of the Charleston County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad. "They never stopped trying."

In the end, the news was beyond grim. It was enough to shake a city that has endured civil war, hurricanes and countless other tragedies in its storied history.

The charred bodies were scattered about the building in three groups of two firefighters and one group of three, Classen said. He was given the task of making sure they were removed with dignity. Their cause of death has not yet been determined.

"When you pull nine of your best friends out, it's hard," he said. "But you've got to be strong for the rest of them."

Firefighters and police formed two lines and saluted as the bodies, draped in American flags, were carried from the rubble.

"It was real somber out there when they brought the bodies out," said St. Andrews firefighter Tripp Mobley.

Thomas accompanied each of the nine bodies out of the building, and the Rev. Rob Dewey of the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy prayed over the fallen. Weary, dirty and

grieving, firefighters cried, hugged and consoled one another as best they could.

Only three people were injured. Charleston County EMS director Don Lundy said ambulances took two firefighters to Medical University Hospital for minor injuries, one for lacerations and another for heat-related problems. A store employee also was treated for heat-related issues.

Firefighter David Fleming cut his hand while removing metal siding from the building and was taken to Medical University Hospital. He's scheduled for surgery today.

The tragedy drew people from throughout the region. Some came to offer condolences. Others took photographs or simply stared at the store's smoking remains, a twisted tangle of concrete and steel. They felt a need to be there, to show their presence, to show they cared.

One woman handed Mayor Joe Riley a sprig of freshly plucked crape myrtle flowers, telling him that she just had to do something to express her sorrow. A Methodist minister waited nearby, hoping to give the mayor a hug.

"It's just so horrendous, so unreal," Lorraine Tucker of West Ashley said as she snapped a photo of the wreckage. "They were someone's father, uncle, husband or brother. It just leaves me with a knot in my stomach."

About 8 a.m., a large wreath of red and yellow flowers was placed on a patch of grass in front of the store. The makeshift memorial grew by the hour as friends and strangers alike left flowers, balloons and signs at the site.

A group of firefighters pounded nine white crosses made from PVC pipe into the earth by the memorial. Someone else added small American flags. Another group hoisted a firefighter atop the sofa store's marquee.

There, he used duct tape to hang a larger version of the stars and stripes, covering block letters announcing a sale that would no longer take place.

Across town, Capt. Gary Taylor sat at a folding table behind the two trucks that carried six of his men to their deaths Monday evening. His fire station, on Ashley Hall Plantation Road, suffered the heaviest loss in the blaze. Taylor struggled to find words to describe his grief amid visits from colleagues, well-wishers and family members who came to empty lockers.

Jacob Forrest, 28, sat nearby on the front bumper of a fire truck. Forrest left his firefighter job with Company 16 a few months ago, thinking he might go back to school. Now he's thinking about returning to the job.

He knew his fallen comrades well. After such a loss, the impulse for Forrest is not to recoil from the danger but to embrace it once more, he said. "I haven't had to deal with this before," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "They were amazing guys."

The store was a former Piggly Wiggly grocery store. It opened as Sofa Super Store 16 years ago. The business also has showrooms in North Charleston and Mount Pleasant, but the West Ashley store was the flagship of the operation, with its sole warehouse, president Herb Goldstein said.

Goldstein had no cost estimate on the loss, and he said he will make a decision next week as to how his business will continue to operate. For now, he and his employees will grieve with the rest of he community.

"There are no words to express our sorrow," he said in a written statement. "All of us at Sofa Super Store are devastated and heartbroken by this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the heroic firefighters who lost their lives."

Thomas, chief for the last 20 years, pledged that his 227-person department would soldier on in the face of loss.

"We're going to stand tall now," he said. "Just like 9/11, we will never forget."

Staff Writers Prentiss Findlay, Tony Bartelme, Katy Stech, Jessica Johnson, Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.