NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Joined by thousands of firefighters from across the country, this grieving region bade farewell to "our dear heroes" yesterday and struggled to find meaning in the deaths of nine men who died battling a furniture store blaze this week.
"Firefighters charge into dangerous places when the natural human instinct is to flee rapidly," marveled Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., whose city lost the most firefighters in a single incident in the nation since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Why, why do they rush into smoke-filled, intensely burning buildings? Why? To defeat their only enemy: fire."
Nine flag-draped coffins formed a somber line at the front of the North Charleston Coliseum, as the families of the fallen marched quietly into the hall, escorted by an honor guard and a pipe band from the New York Fire Department.
The Charleston Symphony Orchestra played softly, punctuated by an old woman's "Oh, Lord" and the wail of a baby.
The packed auditorium, which seats 10,000, was a sea of uniforms. Badges glinted in the dim light, and shoulder patches identified the hundreds of members of public safety agencies from as far away as Seattle, Wash., and Toronto, Canada, to honor their fallen colleagues.
The nine firefighters died Monday night in a fast-moving blaze at the Sofa Super Store on the outskirts of Charleston.
The fire, which is under investigation, apparently started in a storage area and raced through the store and a connected warehouse filled with combustible sofas and mattresses.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford lauded the fallen first responders for living life at full speed and sacrificing for vocations in which they deeply believed. But he also asked, mournfully, "Where do we go from here?"
"We live in the age of 'whatever,' and these were not 'whatever' kind of guys," Sanford said. "They were fully engaged in life, gave their lives being engaged in that life, which begs this larger question: How should we then live?"
The closest thing to an answer yesterday was a simple one: through memory of the dead men and service to the community.
Maria L. La Ganga writes for the Los Angeles Times.