Ceremony honors ‘Charleston 9′ fallen firefighters 15 years after fire
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston community remembered the nine city firefighters who died while battling a massive furniture store fire in West Ashley Saturday.
The remembrance ceremony was held at 7 p.m. at the Charleston 9 Memorial Park, the site of the Sofa Super Store fire where the nine firefighters were killed.
The fallen have come to be known as the Charleston 9:
- Firefighter Brandon Thompson - Ladder 5
- Engineer Brad Baity - Engine 19
- Capt. Louis Mulkey - Engine 15
- Engineer Mark Kelsey - Ladder 5
- Capt. Mike Benke - Engine 16
- Capt. William Hutchinson - Engine 19
- Firefighter Melvin Champaign - Engine 16
- Asst. Engineer Michael French - Ladder 5
- Firefighter James “Earl” Drayton - Engine 19
People from across the country came to the Charleston 9 Memorial Park to pay their respects 15 years after one of the biggest tragedies in American history.
At the time, the incident bore the highest number of firefighter fatalities in a single event since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In the 15 years since that night, only two incidents have claimed more firefighters than the Sofa Super Store fire.
Some of the Charleston Fire Department crew that was at the memorial Saturday night personally worked with the nine victims. They can still recall what it felt like that day and how it carries with them daily.
“But I know that 15 years ago, I was much different staring at the pomp panel, lost and confused.” Assistant Chief of Administration David Griffin said. “About 40 feet to my right looking at the building collapse, wondering what I was supposed to do. Where I am today with the rest of our department, it’s a major change physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s different every day. It ebbs, and it flows. It’s up, and it’s down, but that’s why we’re still here to make sure that the guys that come after us will carry on these guys’ honor and that we keep progressing every day.”
Some of the speakers at the ceremony included crews with the Charleston Fire Department and Mayor John Tecklenburg. From members of the community to the families of the victims, there were few dry eyes in the audience.
“So, as I said, some things change,” Tecklenburg said. “As some people say, change is the only thing that you can ever be sure of. But I’m going to tell you some things don’t change. And one thing that’s not going to change in this city of Charleston is that we will remember and honor the Charleston 9 and their families.”
Not only did members of the Charleston community pay tribute, but retired firefighters, support group leaders and those with a firefighter in the family came from all across the country. It is the feeling of family that brings them together.
“I’ve never met these gentlemen that were here. I’ve never met anybody listening to the rollcall, but we all bleed the same,” New York Stair Climb Event Director Jeff Burkhart said. “We all have the same passion for this service. I’d like to think that if something like this were to happen my way, that we would have people from down here come travel and pay their respects as well.”
The annual remembrance began at midnight Saturday with a 24-hour watch at the flagpole at the center of the park.
A plaque at the base of the flagpole pays tribute to the fallen firefighters and reads, in part:
Their sacrifices led to unprecedented changes in our nation’s fire service that have contributed to improved safety of all of our firefighters and our citizens. We will be forever indebted to these men for their unwavering dedication and call to duty.
Scattered throughout the park are markers for each of the nine men, roughly placed in the spot where they were found inside the building.
Tragedy unfolded quickly on night of fire
Fire crews were dispatched at 7:09 p.m. that evening to the Sofa Super Store where a fire had been reported at the back of the building. Fire investigators believe a “discarded cigarette” is the most likely cause of the fire that night.
Capt. Mark Kelsey, Engineer Michael French, and Firefighter Brandon Thompson were among the first firefighters on the scene just three minutes later.
Capt. Louis Mulkey was found only a few feet from Kelsey at the back of what was the main showroom. When Mulkey arrived on the scene, the inside of the store was already filled with smoke.
Mulkey was the only firefighter from Station 15 who did not make it out.
At 7:15 p.m., Engine 16 pulled up with Capt. Mike Benke and Firefighter Melvin Champaign. Champaign’s sister turned on the television that night, never expecting it would be the last time she would see her brother alive.
Seconds later, then-Fire Chief Rusty Thomas indicated for the first time that his firefighters are in trouble.
By 7:23 p.m., smoke and flames were visible above the west showroom, where Champaign, Benke and French would be found.
Just after 7:30 p.m., a mayday call went out over the radio, followed by a message believed to have been intended for one of the men’s wives: “I love you.”
At 7:34 p.m., Thomas ordered firefighters to evacuate the building. As a last-ditch effort, firefighters smashed the front windows to clear smoke out and give firefighters inside a chance to escape.
But within minutes, the showroom went up in flames. At 7:45 p.m., the roof of the showroom collapsed.
By 10 p.m., the fire was under control. But the full devastation would not be clear until early the next morning when all nine were finally accounted for.
Remembering the fallen led to change
The Charleston Fire Department found itself the target of criticism with demands for changes in the way the department operates.
In the years since the tragedy, department officials have said many changes they have made, including automatic aid agreements with several fire departments and better firefighter training, have helped save lives.
The department purchased new apparatus to fight the fire. It also implemented new procedures for entering a building or home during a fire.
One of the most visible changes Charleston Fire Station 11 now stands adjacent to the memorial park with nine tall vertical windows, each for a fallen firefighter, overlooking the park. All of the fire trucks in the apparatus bay are visible from the park.
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