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Remembering The Unforgettable

The Charleston Nine, Ten Years Later

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June 15, 2017
By Bill Davis | News Editor

What a difference a decade can make. Last Friday evening and everything is calm at Fire Station 10 along Savannah Highway, just down from Gene’s Haufbrau.

Firefighters are talking amongst themselves as they down heaped plates of grilled pork loin, mashed potatoes, and veggies. In the apparatus building, everything is calm, too, the only empty shoes a pair of off-duty pull-ups that found their way on to the floor next to a pumper truck.

Ten years ago to the week, it was a completely different scene.

One firefighter was slumped over in a chair in the apparatus building, a puddle of tears, sweat, and spit gathering between his feet. He’d been crying, with his elbow perched on his bent knees as a friend rubbed his back, telling him in vain that everything was going to be okay.

It wasn’t going to be okay. He’d just come from a scene where friends from other fire stations, co-workers, and perhaps a mentor or two had just died working a fire.

Monday, June 18, 2007, was one of the most deadly days in Charleston history. Earlier that evening, a fire broke out down the road at a former Sofa Super Store, and within less than an hour, the store went from being a good place to buy an inexpensive place to sit to a fiery and deadly inferno.

That inferno took the lives of nine different municipal firefighters from various fire stations, aged 27 to 56: Capt. Louis Mulkey, Capt. Mike Benke, Firefighter Melven Champaign, Capt. William “Bill” Hutchinson, Engineer Bradford “Brad” Baity, Firefighter James “Earl” Drayton, Engineer Mark Kelsey, Engineer Michael French, and Firefighter Brandon Thompson.

“Incident 2150” was the deadliest incident for firefighters in America since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, and held onto that dubious honor for several years.

The spark may have come from something as innocuous as a discarded but still lit cigarette, that consumed the store’s storage building, packed full of chemical-soaked furniture, before it jumped over to the showroom.

It was there in the showroom where things became especially ugly and dangerous. A series of accidents and mistakes led to a spiraling vortex of flame shooting out what had been the roof, which collapsed on the firefighters, trapping them in the showroom where they died of burns and smoke inhalation.

It was the darkest moment in the 40-year tenure of former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. It spawned numerous investigations and political and personal clashes, as well as garnering national attention and support.

It also consumed the career of former Chief Rusty Thomas, who had been one of the area’s most beloved and recognizable public officials. The former chief, who lived to fight fires, went on to sell fireproof firefighting gear and become an unpaid internet announcer for the Citadel baseball team.

Today, the former furniture store site is a memorial. It is rarely crowded, except for this week, when nosy reporters and television crews return to put together stories like this one. Ringed by a fence and some shrubs, it looks more like an empty lot than a memorial.

City Councilman Bill Moody wants to change that. He envisions a site redone that will attract families over and over so they can learn the names of the fallen: Capt. Louis Mulkey, Capt. Mike Benke, Firefighter Melven Champaign, Capt. William “Bill” Hutchinson, Engineer Bradford “Brad” Baity, Firefighter James “Earl” Drayton, Engineer Mark Kelsey, Engineer Michael French, and Firefighter Brandon Thompson.

He wants a memorial with seven elements to bring repeat visitors, like the kind of traffic Patriots Point enjoys in Mt. Pleasant.

“If we don’t make this memorial into something more, then 10 years from now nobody will remember what happened or the fallen’s names,” said Moody. “We have to protect their names in the interest of future generations.”

Some of the sanctity of the parcel has been protected by a nearby neighborhood association, who fought hard and successfully to stop the piece of land directly next door, a former garage, from becoming a towed car lot.

Local architect Dinos Liollio is close to officially unveiling renderings of a proposed $5 million new fire station to be built on the adjacent lot. Soon, he will submit his plans and drawings to the municipal Design and Review Board. The adjacent site will also be used as a training facility.

“In building a new fire station there, we must make sure it pays reverence to the memorial site,” said Liollio. “There will be nine windows along the apparatus room wall that will shine out nine lights onto the memorial park at night.”

Moody would like to see the new firehouse plans incorporated into memorial park’s future, also, with some of the backlot being used for picnic tables and gathering spots.

“Whatever we do, we have to be rightfully gentle around the concerns of the surviving families,” said Moody, referring to the nine firefighters who died a decade ago.

Once again, they’re names were:

Capt. Louis Mulkey, Capt. Mike Benke, Firefighter Melven Champaign, Capt. William “Bill” Hutchinson, Engineer Bradford “Brad” Baity, Firefighter James “Earl” Drayton, Engineer Mark Kelsey, Engineer Michael French, and Firefighter Brandon Thompson.

 

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