Charleston Blaze Kills 9 Firefighters

By Bruce Smith
Associated Press
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C., June 19 -- Fire swept through a furniture warehouse, collapsing its roof and killing nine firefighters inside in the nation's deadliest single disaster for firefighters since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying out their duties," Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said at a morning news conference. "To all of their loved ones, our heart goes out to them."

Two employees in the building were rescued from the blaze, which broke out at about 7 p.m. Monday in the Sofa Super Store and warehouse, Riley said. One was rescued quickly, and firefighters punched a hole through a wall of the warehouse to reach the other, he said.

Firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers saluted as the firefighters' bodies were carried from the warehouse during the night.

"To lose nine is just a tragedy of immense proportions," Riley said. "To lose nine is just unbelievable."

The department has 237 firefighters in 19 companies located throughout the city of about 106,000.

The cause of the fire is under investigation but Riley said arson was not suspected. He said the blaze apparently started in a storage area. He was unsure whether there were sprinklers in the building.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said he lost nine of his best friends.

"They did exactly what they were trained to do," he said. "We got a long road ahead of us, but we're going to stand tall. . . . We're going to stand tall now and for years to come with the families and we will never forget, just like 9/11, we will never forget."

It was the deadliest fire in South Carolina since a 1979 blaze killed 11 people in the Lancaster County jail. In the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, 340 firefighters, two paramedics and a chaplain were killed, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

"These 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," President Bush said in a statement issued in Washington.

Officials identified the victims as 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; and Firefighter Melvin Champaign, 46.

Witnesses said the collapse of the roof threw debris over about two dozen rescue workers. Onlookers were hit with flying ash.

"It was like a 30-foot tornado of flames," said Mark Hilton, who was struck in an eye.

Gov. Mark Sanford ordered state flags lowered to half-staff. "These are truly some of South Carolina's bravest, who in this case made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company