Riley recalls dark days from 3 tragedies during tenure as mayor
CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - For many, it will be hard to believe that after 40 years, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley will leave office.
During that span, Riley says he faced three major tragedies, from a Category Four hurricane that nearly wiped out McClellanville over 25 years ago to two other tragedies that each took the lives of nine people.
The most recent of those two, was the shooting of nine parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17.
"Well, it broke my heart and its hard to talk about," he said of the shooting. But it was one of three he says stand out as taking the biggest emotional toll.
"Hurricane Hugo, people's lives were at stake," Riley says. "The Sofa Superstore [fire]. Nine brave firefighters died. And Mother Emanuel. Nine people in a Bible Study killed by a hateful bigot. Those were the hardest."
When he talked about the Mother Emanuel tragedy, Riley's voice gets quiet and serious.
"It's really hard to talk about it," he says.
On that deadly night in June, he says he received a call from Police Chief Greg Mullen at about 9:20 p.m.
"They estimated eight had died, one was in critical condition and died on the way," he says. "And then realizing one of them was Sen. [Clementa] Pinckney and going to have to tell the families, maybe 200-plus had assembled at the hotel around the corner. All they knew was that there had been some shooting at the church and to be there when they realized there loved ones were dead."
The mayor makes it a point of emphasizing that the accused gunman, Dylann Roof, is not from Charleston.
"And his hate didn't incubate here," Riley says. "It was 100-plus miles away, but the fact of the matter is that that bad person did not come from another planet or from another country, he came from America and from within South Carolina. So, that just reminded me the work is not finished."
Riley says he doesn't have a single regret as he looks back at his 40 years in office, even when he lost his only election when he ran for governor in 1994.
Looking back, he now says, he's grateful that defeat gave him more time to serve the people of Charleston.
"I came to accept that I did my best, I ran for the office, wasn't successful and then had the blessing of being able to come back here, roll up my sleeves and keep working for this community," Riley says.
After he leaves office, he plans to stay busy, teaching at his alma mater, The Citadel, as well as at the College of Charleston.
He also says he may work with his old law firm and help other mayors solve problems in their cities.
Riley was sworn in on Dec. 15, 1975. His last day in office will be Monday.
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