All firefighters consider one another to be family.
And as Monday’s fifth-anniverary memorial service for the nine Charleston firefighters who died in the Sofa Super Store blaze showed, the family remains strong.
The nine perished June 18, 2007, when the roof of the Savannah Highway store collapsed on them.
In a brief but touching ceremony at the former site of the store, a bell tolled for each firefighter as their names were called out: Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton, Michael French, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson.
After the ceremony, families and friends of the nine mingled at what is now a city park. Memorials placed at the site where each firefighter died punctuate what is otherwise a wide expanse of green grass.
Several hundred people, including current firefighters and their families, joined in the tribute.
“I think it was absolutely beautiful,” Brandi Clark of Moncks Corner, the sister of French, said of the ceremony.
Afterward, Clark and French’s niece and nephew, Kyle and Kelsi Davis of Walterboro, embraced emotionally.
Donna French, who was French’s wife, and Rachel Sheridan, Thompson’s fiancee, placed roses at each of the nine memorial sites.
Brittany Haigler of Summerville, who was just 8 when the firefighters died, said she heard a lot about Mulkey, who worked with youths and coached athletic teams in Summerville.
Brittany’s father is Charleston Fire Capt. Bill Haigler. He said he had worked with each of the nine.
“It was a very nice tribute,” he said, adding it’s fitting that the firefighters should be remembered this way every year.
Brittany Haigler recalled that night of the fire.
“Dad was off duty that night, but he went in,” she said. “He knew every single one of them.”
Brittany’s mom, Laura Haigler, said there wasn’t any way Capt. Haigler was not going to do anything he could to help that night.
“When he heard that his brothers were trapped, he didn’t hesitate to go,” she said.
Her family’s friends and relatives phoned all night, she recalled. “The phone calls started at 1 a.m., to make sure Bill was OK. Bill stayed there the entire night, even though he had to be on duty the next day” at a Daniel Island fire station, Laura Haigler said.
Crisis Ministries Chaplain Bob O’Connell said the annual memorials are helpful to families and friends of the nine. O’Connell said he was dispatched to the Sofa Store fire, but there wasn’t much he could do that night. In the subsequent years, he said, the chaplains’ mission has been to help survivors “celebrate life.”
“It’s a ministry of presence,” he said. “We come out here every year to be with the families and help them get through. And big guys like me are Kleenex, and if someone needs a hug or two, we are here.”