Honoring their sacrifice

This year marks the sixth anniversary of the Sofa Super Store fire that claimed the lives of nine Charleston firefighters. A ceremony will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the former store site at 1807 Savannah Highway, now a landscaped city park.

Grace Beahm

Six years ago Tuesday, nine Charleston firefighters went to their deaths when a rolling inferno trapped them inside a massive furniture outlet in West Ashley.

As they have every year since, city officials, firefighters, families of the fallen and community members will gather on the site of the Sofa Super Store blaze to mark the somber anniversary.

A remembrance ceremony will take place at 7 p.m. at the former store site at 1807 Savannah Highway, now a grass-covered, landscaped city park.

The ceremony, as in past years, will be a muted, solemn affair.

Members of the Charleston Fire Department will line up in formation as the names of the nine men are read aloud: Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton, Mike French, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson.

A bell will ring for each, followed by bagpipes.

Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack, who wasn’t with the department at the time of the blaze, said the tragedy made an imprint on the entire American fire service, and Tuesday night’s service will be a time for “introspection, retrospection and making sure we honor them and the sacrifice they made.”

The nine men died while fighting a raging blaze that began as a loading-dock fire and spread through the sprawling building, which was filled with highly combustible furniture. Investigators have said a carelessly discarded cigarette likely was to blame.

It was the nation’s worst loss of firefighters’ lives since the 9/11 terror attacks, and the tragedy spawned a host of improvements to the Fire Department’s training, tactics, leadership and equipment.

On Monday, firefighters were busy preparing the site for the ceremony, tidying the grounds and polishing the memorial markers for each of the nine. At night, they also began a 24-hour watch at the flagpole on the memorial site.

“It’s a very important place to me,” said Firefighter T.A. Fulmer, who is married to Hutchinson’s daughter. “I came into the fire service after this day, and those nine guys and what they gave that day allowed the change that needed to happen to the Charleston Fire Department to happen.”

The public is invited to attend the ceremony, but parking at the site will be limited. Visitors are encouraged to use off-site parking in the surrounding area, officials said.

Warren Peper contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.