- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — One coached football when he wasn’t fighting fires. Another cut hair at a barbershop. Yet another was known for quoting the Bible. They called each other nicknames such as “Squirrel” and “Lightning.”

On Tuesday, this city on the South Carolina coast mourned them all: nine firefighters killed inside a burning furniture store in the nation’s worst loss of firefighters since the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

“They did exactly what they were trained to do,” fire Chief Rusty Thomas said.

They went into the burning building on Monday in search of two employees who had been reported to be trapped inside.

One employee made it out. The other, Jonathan Tyrell, said he banged with a hammer, hoping someone would find him, and a firefighter was eventually able to pull him out.

“I hugged him and told him ‘thank you’ over and over,” Mr. Tyrell said in an interview aired yesterday on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

The cause of the fire at the Sofa Super Store was under investigation, although arson was not suspected.

The blaze apparently started in an outdoor trash bin, then quickly engulfed the store and its adjacent warehouse as firefighters tried to put down the flames, the Post and Courier of Charleston reported yesterday. As it spread to the building, a door blew open and the flames swept in.

“We tried to close the door, but we couldn’t,” Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin told the newspaper.

He said firefighters started bringing in hoses, but they didn’t stand a chance as the sofa and chair material ignited. The men were spread out in teams when the roof collapsed, Charleston Fire Capt. Jake Jenkins told the newspaper.

The men ranged in age from 27 to 56 and together had 131 years of experience with the Charleston Fire Department.

At 56, James “Earl” Drayton, known around the fire station as “Squirrel,” was the oldest of the group. With 32 years on the job, he could have been safely in retirement.

Michael French was the youngest firefighter at 27 and had joined just 18 months ago.

Melvin Champaign was known for his love of Bible study.

Capt. Billy Hutchinson, a 30-year veteran, was jokingly tagged “Lightning” because of his slow, deliberate pace. Capt. Hutchinson, 48, worked off-duty at a barber shop. His funeral has been scheduled for tomorrow.

Brad Baity, 37, was a part-time house painter. Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34, helped coach football and basketball players at Summerville High School, where he had played quarterback.

Also killed were Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Mark Kelsey, 40; and Brandon Thompson, 37.

The blaze plunged the city of 106,000 and its 237 surviving firefighters into mourning.

President Bush said the firefighters were “true heroes who demonstrated great skill and courage. Their unwavering commitment to their neighbors and to the city of Charleston is an inspiration to all Americans.”

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