Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Charleston 9: 10 Years Since the Fire

A massive furniture store fire claimed the lives of nine City of Charleston firefighters — the Charleston 9 — 10 years ago.

I’ll never forget the night of June 18, 2007.

If you’ve read this blog for at least a decade, you will have already heard some of this.

A decade ago, a bit after 7:00pm, I had left work for the evening and had stopped by a nearby shopping mall. After running a brief errand I was walking to my car when I noticed a thick plume of black smoke over the tops of trees. It looked relatively near, and two things quickly dawned on me: First, it looked like the kind of smoke you see when someone burns a large pile of tires; and second, there was nowhere in that area where someone should be burning tires.

In the weeks before this fire, I had been given an interesting assignment at the television station. Since management knew I had some experience with the web platform our station was using at the time, I was asked to get our news team up to speed on this system, which was new to them. I did so, holding little workshops with the entire news staff to explain how it all worked.

With that assignment accomplished, I was then told that they wanted me to oversee their efforts for a short time, just to make sure they were handling everything. The first day that had been asked to “oversee” things happened to be this particular day.

Having seen the smoke, I drove toward the area to get an idea of what was happening. As I got close to Savannah Highway, where the fire was, and saw that police had already cordoned off the area. I managed to cross the highway and get on the other side of the scene. From an apartment complex parking lot behind a large furniture store and warehouse building, I could see flames coming up through the eaves. I called the newsroom and was told by the assignment desk manager that we had sent a videographer to the scene.

To be fair, they weren’t on the scene seeing what I was seeing. Normally, a videographer would have been enough. But this fire already looked a lot bigger than a typical fire. I told them we needed at least one more crew and then made my way back to the newsroom.

Scanner traffic by then was crazy, and everyone who had not gone to the scene was listening for details.

While all that was happening, of course, multiple fire crews had responded to the fire and had entered the building to rescue an employee who was said to be trapped inside and then to look for anyone else who might not have been able to get out. While those of us in the news business were doing our job, they were doing theirs, trying to save lives and property as best they could in rapidly-deteriorating conditions.

There are two moments during that week I will never forget.

The first happened that evening in the newsroom. If you’ve never been in a newsroom, it’s a noisy place. There are conversations, telephones ringing and multiple police scanners all going at the same time most of the time. It’s hard to find a single minute in which there’s not at least one of those happening incessantly. In fact, it’s a shock to the system when you do find one of those rare moments of silence.

At some point well into the evening, the first word of firefighters “unaccounted for” came across the scanner.

Suddenly, we had one of those rare moments of absolute perfect silence. If I had to wager, I’d bet that people actually froze midstep, but maybe that’s just one of those little embellishments we add to memories as time passes.

But that initial message about missing firefighters definitely prompted that moment of silence. The number of them varied as crew chiefs conducted head counts: there were as few as 8 missing and as many as 11 before they finally settled on 9:

Engineer Brad Baity

Capt. Mike Benke

Firefighter Melvin Champaign

Firefighter James “Earl” Allen Drayton

Assistant Engineer Michael French

Capt. William “Billy” Hutchinson III

Engineer Mark Kelsey

Capt. Louis Mulkey

Firefighter Brandon Thompson

The second moment I will never forget came days later.

It was the day I decided I needed to go back to the scene of the fire for myself.

Let me explain that.

When you’ve covered a news story from afar — essentially compiling information others bring in from the field into a web story — it’s easy to stay unattached to the story, to the loss, to other people’s pain. You see it in the interviews, you hear it in the soundbites, but you don’t necessarily feel it directly.

By that Saturday, I had reached the point where I’d been through the emotions of the week as best I could without seeing the aftermath in person. So I drove to the scene.

There was a crowd of people, a crowd that had been meandering by for days, looking, praying, weeping, searching for answers, as they gazed at the burned out shell of the building.

A row of hedges in front of the property along the sidewalk was covered with t-shirts from fire departments across the state, the country, and even the continent.

There were grown firefighters — people we consider among the bravest in existence — embracing each other, crying on each others’ shoulders. How anyone could look at that and not be moved is beyond me.

As I walked along the row of t-shirts, amazed by the distance from which they’d come, I noticed a small group of people crowded around…something. I couldn’t tell what it was they were looking at, but it seemed to have them frozen in place.

I made it to the other end of the shrubbery, took it all in, said a prayer, and began to make my way back. Seeing what was left of the building and realizing there had been people in there who didn’t make it out gave the “story” a more definitive perspective that I’d lacked. Maybe, while I was the principal person writing the web version of the story for the majority of the week, it was good that I was more detached.

But there comes a point at which detachment is not necessarily a good thing.

I walked back past the firefighters, the onlookers, those snapping photos of the scene.

And then I saw what the others had earlier been gathered around: It was almost a silly-looking spectacle and would have been if the mood hadn’t been so somber.

Someone had brought nine stuffed Dalmatian dogs to the site and arranged them in two rows, each to symbolize one of the nine firefighters. Each one held a little American flag in its mouth.

Just as I was beginning to congratulate myself for holding it together, the site of those Dalmatians was enough to blow that accomplishment.

I’ve told this story over the years, and I always get choked up when the part about the Dalmatians comes up. I suspect I always will.

After the loss of those brave nine men and the loss of every firefighter since then, there are still those first responders who insist on taking on that responsibility to serve, protect and make the world a better place than it otherwise would be.

They’re the ones we often see passing us while we’re running away from danger.

In those moments, they’re the ones running toward it.

God bless them all.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 27 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.