CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The close-knit firehouses of Charleston lost a meticulous leader, a coach to young athletes and a few light-hearted pranksters among nine firefighters who perished in the deadliest day for the profession in the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I lost nine of my best friends," said Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, choking back tears yesterday. "To the families, you gave them to us, and we protected them as best as we could."
Mayor Joseph Riley said the dead firefighters, who had more than 130 years of experience with the Charleston Fire Department, gave "the last full measure of devotion" to the community.
The cause of Monday night's blaze at a one-story furniture warehouse was under investigation, though officials said they do not believe that arson was involved. The building had no sprinkler system, but was not required to have one. Furniture stacked on shelves at the Sofa Super Store and warehouse provided the kindling, and the roof collapsed within 30 minutes of firefighters' arrival.
Carol Harken watched the fire from across the street. "It was an inferno. That fire went so fast those guys didn't have a chance. It looked like the building melted."
It was a day of shock and mourning yesterday, particularly among firefighters who typically work and live together during 24-hour shifts.
Firefighter Bryan Bolick, 28, had swapped shifts with Brandon Thompson, one who perished, so he could play in a charity golf tournament. "He was a go-getter, a very aggressive fireman. He was like a brother," Bolick said.
Three of the dead firefighters worked in Bolick's firehouse.
"This is devastating for us as a family," Bolick added.
He said Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson was "the funniest guy alive." Bolick said Hutchinson "could have an around kids sense of humor or he could have what we call a firehouse sense of humor."
Bolick recalled that Capt. Louis Mulkey helped coach football at Summerville High School. "A lot of people would follow him anywhere. Leadership, everybody had a lot of confidence in that guy.
"Louis Mulkey definitely went the extra mile with a lot of things. Everything he did, he made sure he did it right. Every job we did, he'd stay there the longest, he would make sure everything got done," Bolick said.
The mayor spoke for many here and across the country when he said at a morning news conference: "Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying on their duties."
Riley added, "To all of their loved ones, our heart goes out to them."
The store lay in charred ruins yesterday. Much of the facade had peeled away. Scorched metal and concrete blocks were exposed on a collapsed section of the front wall. The roof had collapsed.
On a grass strip in front of the parking lot, nine crosses stood, each fashioned from white metal pipe and with an American flag planted beside it. Passers-by left flowers, balloons and more flags behind them. It was the worst loss of life on a single day for American firefighters since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Mike Dorning and Tim Jones write for the Chicago Tribune.
Killed in fire
The Charleston County Coroner's office released the ranks, names, ages and years of service of the nine men killed:
Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48; 30 years of service
Capt. Mike Benke, 49; 29 years
Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; 11 1/2 years
Engineer Mark Kelsey, 40; 12 1/2 years
Engineer Bradford "Brad" Baity, 37; nine years
Assistant engineer Michael French, 27; 18 months
Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, 56; 32 years
Firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27; four years
Firefighter Melvin Champaign, 46; two years