Friday, June 22, 2007

Thousands remember 9 South Carolina firefighters

I don't have anything to say about this, I just thought it was inportant to cover...

From the AP:
Nine caskets lined the front of a coliseum Friday as thousands of firefighters from across the nation, their hats in their hands, 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 fire Monday night created the single largest loss of firefighters' lives since the Sept. 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 burst of laughter from the crowd as he imitated their voices and mannerisms.

He recalled one fire call with 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.

Kelsey, he recalled, had the energy of the "Energizer Bunny." Hutchinson was nicknamed "Lightning."

"It's not because he moved so fast," Thomas said. "My dad said, 'Lightning would have to strike around him, to get him to move.'"

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."[snip]

The investigation into the cause of the warehouse fire and the men's deaths was still under way Friday. Federal, state and local agencies involved in the investigation planned a news conference Saturday.

Officials on Thursday released tapes of several 911 calls about the fire. While federal investigators have not confirmed where the blaze broke out, some of the 10 recordings bolster the assertion several city fire officials have made that it likely started at the back of the store in a covered space between the showroom and a warehouse crammed with furniture.

A store employee told The Associated Press that workers frequently smoked cigarettes in that area and were strongly cautioned to carefully throw them away.

Federal investigators have not discussed possible causes for the fire, and have not revealed if they are considering whether a cigarette could have started the blaze.

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