Owner creates scholarship for firefighters, families

A park with a memorial to honor the Charleston firefighters killed June 18 will rise from the ashes of the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway, Mayor Joe Riley said Wednesday.

"The land is sacred. Nine courageous firefighters lost their lives there. It will be kept sacred," Riley said at a City Hall press conference.

Riley said he and property owner Herb Goldstein agreed on the future of the 2.5 acre site in a conversation early Tuesday morning before Riley flew to Indiana for the funeral of Charleston firefighter Mark Kelsey, the last of the nine firefighters to be buried.

"He (Goldstein) didn't disagree with me. He gave no indication at all of opposition," Riley said.

Goldstein's spokeswoman Colleen Troy confirmed the conversation between Riley and Goldstein.

"He did speak with the mayor yesterday. He fully supports this idea and had been looking for ways to honor firefighters in a permanent way," Troy said.

Holly Gildea, daughter of fallen firefighter Capt. Mike Benke, welcomed news of the plan for a park and memorial. "I think it will be great. I don't think anything else should be there. I think it should be something special and memorable," she said.

Riley said the city will pay fair market value for the land. "I'm comfortable that City Council will support it. One way or another we will see that it is acquired,"

he said. Ten years ago, the property was valued at more than $1 million.

Riley gave no timeline for when the park might become a reality. The community and the firefighters' families should decide on the park design, he said.

"It will be beautiful and it will be done with great commitment to excellence," he said.

The Sofa Super Store is the site of an investigation by Charleston police, the Charleston County sheriff, the State Law Enforcement Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "It's going to take a while. All of the information will be public information," Riley said.

Also on Wednesday, Riley said he supports discussions with the General Assembly about changing the law so that older buildings like the Sofa Super Store would be required to be retrofitted with a sprinkler system. Fire experts have said that a sprinkler system could have prevented the tragedy. "We certainly look forward to working with the Legislature," he said.

Riley said he met individually Tuesday with eight of the nine fallen firefighters' families to discuss plans for the park and other issues. He told them the city staff will be at their disposal to help. He said he would meet with Kelsey's family Wednesday.

Troy said Goldstein has started the Charleston Nine Scholarship Endowment for first responders and their families. It will help defray the costs of college tuition. The Coastal Community Foundation will manage the program. The fund will award scholarships annually to first responders and to children or dependents of both first responders currently serving and those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Coastal Community Foundation President and CEO George Stevens said Goldstein launched the scholarship with a donation of more than $100,000. Other donors have expressed interest in contributing, and Stevens said he expects the fund to grow quickly.

"The idea of the Goldstein family is to help people who daily take on these life-threatening risks," Stevens said.

The first scholarships, which will be awarded by committee, should be available for the school year starting in fall of 2008, he said.

Contributions to the scholarship fund can be mailed to: Charleston Nine Scholarship Endowment, Coastal Community Foundation of SC, 90 Mary St., Charleston, SC, 29403.