Charleston honors fallen firefighters, officials say fire started on loading dock - - Columbia, South Carolina

Charleston honors fallen firefighters, officials say fire started on loading dock

CHARLESTON, SC (WIS/AP) - Charleston paused to remember the nine firefighters killed in a blaze there earlier this week in a moving memorial and tribute to them.

Firefighters from as far away as Alberta, Canada attended the memorial.

A silent procession of mostly fire trucks and firefighters from all over the country stretched for miles and began Charleston's day of mourning.

Charleston resident Diane Jeffcoate said, "They are one big family, firefighters, they are.  I never realized it until today."

The procession moved past the various fire stations where the fallen firefighters worked and passed thousands who lined the streets to pay their respects, especially along the stretch of road that passes the furniture store where the nine firefighters died in a blaze Monday night. 

Thousands more packed Charleston's coliseum - all eyes drawn to the nine flag draped coffins on stage and to hear tributes from near and far.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said, "As they entered that building, they walked into the pages of history of our community." 

New York City's Fire Department sent its pipe and drum corps, the one that played repeatedly in the wake of 9/11.

And there were more tributes.

Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas says the nine firefighters will never be forgotten. Thomas recounted a personal story about each of the firefighters.

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford said, "No matter what I say, the reality is that come Sunday supper, some dads that would of been there aren't gonna be home."

Many who called the memorial amazing also said they never want to see one again.

911 tapes tell of heroism
Tapes and transcripts suggest that passing motorists and a store worker frantically called authorities about a fire behind the furniture store on the night nine firefighters died.

The transcripts and the 911 tapes were released Thursday. The phone calls tell a story of firefighters desperately trying to save someone caught inside the building.

The fire broke out about 7pm Monday evening at the Sofa Super Store and warehouse. It was a massive fire, fueled by all the wood and flammable material inside. One witness described the fire as being like "a 30-foot tornado of flames."

Another witness said, "It came from nowhere. It was a standing structure and five seconds later it was on the ground."

When firefighters first initially arrived, they entered the inferno to rescue what they were told were two trapped employees.

On the tapes, a dispatcher says, "Be advised, we have someone on the floor trapped inside."

"Okay, he is beating on the wall with a hammer trying to get someone's attention."

Johnathan Tyrrell, 28, worked at the furniture store and was trapped inside when the fire broke out.  

Later, control says, "Be advised the fireman told me they got one guy out and were going back for another."

Tyrrell was safe, but that's when the unthinkable happened. The intense heat essentially melted the structure supporting the roof and it collapsed.

All employees in the store made it out safely.

The city only released the recordings of emergency calls to police. Calls to the fire department were not disclosed because they are still part of the federal investigation.

The coroner in Charleston says smoke inhalation and extensive burns killed the nine firefighters.

The firefighters who were killed had worked for the department anywhere from 18 months to 30 years. Killed were:

  • Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48
  • Capt. Mike Benke, 49
  • Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34
  • Engineer Mark Kelsey, 40
  • Engineer Bradford "Brad" Baity, 37
  • Assistant Engineer Michael French, 27
  • Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, 56
  • Firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27
  • Firefighter Melven Champaign, 46

The National Fire Protection Association says the nine deaths is the most since 340 firefighters, two paramedics and a chaplain died on September 11th in New York City.

The Monday night blaze was the deadliest fire in the state since 11 people died in a fire at the Lancaster County jail in 1979.

Chief Rusty Thomas says his department has a "long road ahead," but he says they're "going to stand tall." The department has 237 firefighters in 19 companies located throughout the city.

As a result of the outpouring of support and requests from the community on how they can help, a fund has been established for those wanting to make donations. Donations can be dropped off at any branch of Bank of America or sent to:

City of Charleston Fireman's Fund
c/o Bank of America
P.O. Box 304
Charleston, South Carolina  29402

Federal investigators say they have traced the origin of the fire that killed nine firefighters back to a loading dock.

The ATF says investigators have finished picking through the remains of the furniture store, but authorities did not say if they have pinpointed the cause of the deadly blaze.

Investigators say they have more evidence to sift through and that it will be a lengthy, meticulous process.

Posted by Bryce Mursch

Copyright 2007 Raycom Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. AP contributed to this report.

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