Lowcountry honors Charleston 9 on 7th anniversary of fatal fire

Community remembers the Charleston 9
Updated: Jun. 19, 2014 at 7:36 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The community is paying tribute to the nine firefighters who died while battling a West Ashley furniture store fire seven years ago.

Members of the Charleston Fire Department, friends, and family members of the victims attended a memorial service at the former Sofa Super Store site on 1807 Savannah Highway.

Diane French, the mother of Michael French, says she takes solace in knowing her son died doing one of his favorite activities.

"[At] 17 years old, he told me how he was going to leave this world - that it would be on the end of a hose. And I said, 'boy - you're crazy' and he said, 'Mama, I'm telling you how it's going to be: I'm going to walk in and I won't walk out.' So it's like he knew," she said.

The Charleston 9, as the victims came to be known, died at the scene of the fire on the evening of June 18, 2007.

The victims were Engineer Bradford "Brad" Baity, of Engine 19; Capt. Mike Benke of Engine 16; Firefighter Melvin Champaign, of Engine 16; Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, of Engine 19; Asst. Engineer Michael French, of Ladder 5; Capt. William Hutchinson, of Engine 19; Engineer Mark Kelsey, of Ladder 5; Capt. Louis Mulkey, of Engine 15; and Firefighter Brandon Thompson, of Ladder 5.

At the memorial service for the men held four days later, an estimated 30,000 people attended, including firefighters from agencies across North America.

"Oh God, they brought in a truck and a crew from Alaska to come down here for us. It was really something to see," CFD Honor Guard Member Capt. Pete Salvo said.

That's inspired some members of the Honor Guard to repay the respect shown, traveling around the country to attend the funerals of other fallen firefighters. The Honor Guard was most recently in Boston, where two firefighters were killed in the line of duty.

"We felt it was our duty, when something happened in another state that we should show up and show our support for them, too," Capt. Salvo said.

But the healing process continues in the lowcountry for those involved.

"A fellow that was out here earlier today, he'd take four or five steps in and go back out, four or five steps in. It took him about 4 times to get all the way in," retired firefighter Reggie Barnes said. "It's a process; it's not a short process, it's not an easy process, and it takes a long time."

French says her healing is helped by her son's passion for his job.

"That is one of the things that I draw strength from is that he got to live his dream. It became a nightmare for me, but he wouldn't have had it any other way," she said.

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