9 fallen S.C. firefighters honored by comrades

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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Nine caskets lined the front of a coliseum yesterday as thousands of firefighters from across the nation, hats in hand, honored nine colleagues killed in a furniture store blaze.

With an orchestra playing, uniformed escorts walked the men’s wives, siblings and children to their seats in a long procession of red carnations, tears and hugs.

The Monday night fire resulted in the single largest loss of firefighters’ lives since the September 11 terror attacks. Beside the caskets, the faces of its victims looked out proudly from large photos: Capt. William “Billy” Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford “Brad” Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; James “Earl” Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melvin Champaign, 46.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, the son of a firefighter, told personal stories about his men, pausing to say each name before launching into tales that often drew bursts of laughter from the crowd as he imitated their voices and mannerisms.

He recalled one fire call with Mr. Drayton in 1977. It was about 3 a.m.

“He’s hollering, ‘Rusty, get this thing going. … That’s my house,’ ,” the chief said to laughter.

Mr. Kelsey, he recalled, had the energy of the “Energizer Bunny.” Capt. Hutchinson was nicknamed “Lightning.”

“It’s not because he moved so fast,” Chief Thomas said. “My dad said, ‘Lightning would have to strike around him, to get him to move.’ ”

Chief Thomas also issued a challenge to the remainder of his department. “The challenge is that we’ll never forget,” he said. “When we go to work, we will never forget these nine great heroes that worked for the City of Charleston Fire Department and served this community like no one else has ever served.”

A firehouse bell was struck 15 times and bagpipers played Taps.

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. told the crowd that the men were heroes.

“It was their calling, it was their training, it was their duty and, unflinchingly, without hesitation, with extreme courage, they did it,” he said. “They are public servants of the highest order. They want to serve. They want to help. They want to save. And they want to protect.”

Gov. Mark Sanford said questions may always linger about a higher purpose behind the deaths, but the men proved their courage Monday night.

“Who we are crucially depends on what we’re willing to stand up for in life. In short, are we willing to walk the walk?” he said. “They walked their walk right into the company of angels and to heaven’s gate.”

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