When Christan Rainey joined other firefighter recruits on an orientation tour of North Charleston, he grew silent as they passed by the mobile home where his family once lived.
Rainey, 28, had not laid eyes on the old homestead in Ferndale in seven years. Not since his mother and four siblings, ages 6 to 16, were slaughtered there in a burst of inexplicable violence attributed to his stepfather.
“Looking at it made me feel like it was Day One all over again,” he said softly. “It gave me one of the most eerie spiritual feelings ever.”
Rainey, a burly young man with braided hair, willed himself to get past the moment, to stay strong and to keep moving forward. That’s been his game plan since his immediate family was wiped out in a single day in September 2006. He trusts in his faith to see him through, refusing to let his tragedy define him or hold him back in life.
That philosophy led him to return to North Charleston after several years of living in Louisiana and Florida. He had needed that space in the beginning to deal with the crushing grief on his own terms. But the call of home was strong, as was his desire to give back to the people who supported him in his time of need.
That’s one of the main reasons Rainey joined the North Charleston Fire Department in January.
“I felt like I was kind of indebted to my community for being there for me when I was going through all of this,” he said. “In a way, they saved my life. And through this, I thought I might end up saving someone else’s life someday.”
Rainey’s perseverance through tragedy will earn him statewide recognition today at the South Carolina Victims’ Rights Week Conference in Columbia. He is due to receive the state’s Distinguished Survivor Award at a luncheon in the capital city.
“He’s just an outstanding young man,” said North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who became a friend and mentor to Rainey after the killings. “He’s truly a role model for other people who have been through tragedy, to show you can overcome it and make something out of your life.”
A gruesome scene
Rainey’s life was upended on a Saturday afternoon in 2006 when North Charleston police found his family shot to death in their mobile home on Marson Street.
Killed were his mother, 39-year-old Detra Rainey, and her four youngest children, William Lee Rainey, 16; Hakiem Rainey, 13; Malachi Robinson, 8; and Samenia Robinson, 6.
“It was one of the worst (killings) I have ever seen,” police Lt. Kelly Washburn said. “It was so sad.”
Police quickly arrested Detra’s Rainey’s husband, 41-year-old Michael Anthony Simmons, a stepfather to the children. Investigators think Simmons shot the family in the early morning, then hung around the house. Neighbors reported seeing him sitting on his porch and fidgeting for much of the day, almost until the very moment North Charleston police arrived.
Washburn interviewed Simmons for about four hours, hoping to learn some motive for the bloodshed. “But he never would say what happened,” she said.
Then, before his case went to court, Simmons was diagnosed with dementia in 2008 and declared unfit to stand trial. He is currently housed in a state psychiatric facility in Columbia.
Turning grief to fuel
Christan Rainey was attending school in Louisiana when the killings occurred. His cousin called him that night and urged him, without explanation, to come home as soon as possible.
She met him at the airport and broke the news at Hampton Park, where they had played as kids.
His mind reeled. “I lost them all at one time,” he said. “It was like a whole generation had been wiped out.”
His grief was overwhelming, a palpable presence. But he also found deep wells of support, from an aunt and uncle whom he now calls his stepparents, and from unlikely sources such as Summey and police officials. Summey and others called him to check on how he was doing, to let him know people cared and to encourage him to fight back and not let the grief derail his life.
Rainey said he considers that help a blessing, and he took the advice to heart. “I decided to take the pain and turn it into fuel to be a better person, to be a better man,” he said. “I want to live up to the expectations of my mom, to be the man she wanted me to be.”
In addition to his fire service career, he also has launched an Italian ice business called Chucktown Ice.
Fire Chief Greg Bulanow could see the drive right away in his new recruit. “To go through what he’s been through and to have such a strong desire to serve others is really a credit to his character.”
Rainey said he is honored, humbled even, to receive the state award. His aunt and uncle will be on hand, as they were for college graduation and other important events.
It’s still hard for him to tell his story, to share his pain with others. But in doing so, he hopes he can inspire others to persevere through life’s challenges.
Rainey hasn’t gotten over the killings. Not hardly.
He still visits his family’s graves on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. He can’t help but think about the various life events he never will share with them.
“It’s heavy, and if I told anyone that it’s getting lighter I’d be lying,” he said softly. “I think about them every day.
“But God has a life mapped out for me,” he said, “and obviously he thinks I’m a strong enough person to handle it.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.