Chief Rusty adjusting to a new reality
Rusty Thomas slid into a booth at a North Charleston diner wearing a Citadel Baseball jacket and a smile. It was the first time he'd talked to a reporter since he left his post as Charleston's fire chief more than a year ago in the wake of the tragic fire that took the lives of nine of his men.
"I had to get new clothes after I retired," he said in that heavy Charleston brogue that became so familiar to locals during his 32 years on the force. "All I ever wore was a fire uniform."
Such was the life of a third-generation firefighter whose career began to unravel that fateful June 18 evening in 2007 when the roof collapsed on the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway.
We agreed not to talk about the fire. It's too painful and much too controversial for the man many blame for what went wrong that night.
"People ask if I'm Ok," he said over a lunch. "I'm Ok, but I'd be the biggest liar in town if I said I didn't miss it."
Thomas will be 52 this month and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. For the past year, he's been working for a uniform company, Uniform John, in North Charleston. It caters to police, medics and firefighters.
"I still see a lot of people in the business," said Thomas, who friends still refer to as Chief. "Once people found out I'm working there, they come by to see me."
He reluctantly took his retirement from the city fire department where his father and grandfather served. Now his son, Trey, a Citadel grad, has joined the St. Paul's Fire Department, the fourth generation to fight fires in this county.
While Rusty is grateful for friends who have helped him, he doesn't appear completely comfortable selling clothes for a living. He'd always prefer to be deer hunting or watching baseball, his only passions beyond the fire department and his family.
Soon he'll get to scratch that baseball itch by serving as the color analyst for the Internet broadcast of Citadel home baseball games. And he often pitches batting practice for James Island Charter High School and the RiverDogs.
Sound of sirens
But there's not a day that goes by when he doesn't hear a siren and wonder where the truck is going.
"The one thing I loved to do was drive a firetruck," he said. "I was in church the other Sunday and heard one go by outside on the street. I turned to my wife and told her which one it was. I could tell by the sound of the engine."
That's how ingrained the Charleston Fire Department was in Thomas' soul. Which is why his future will always be haunted by the past.
"You certainly learn a lot about who your friends really are when you are down," he said. "And I've got some good friends."
But even that won't change what happened that night.
"I think about it," he said, choking on the subject. "But it's not my entire life. I'm Ok. The longer it goes. ..."
Sometimes Thomas has trouble finishing those sentences. Indeed, he probably always will.