Charleston firefighter and captain Tommy Buell sat at his Heriot Street station when a call sounded on his radio.
There had been a car accident on Calhoun Street in downtown Charleston, he heard a dispatcher say. Another fire station had been called out to the wreck, so he stayed put.
But in the hours that would follow, emotions that had been festering inside him for about a year would spill out and ultimately end his 28-year career.
Others in the department faced similar fates after surviving the 2007 blaze that killed nine of their colleagues.
But survival can be a relative term to some of the men who have endured nightmares and depression in the months and years that followed.
Buell said that one place gave him comfort, relief and the support he needed to pull through: the Charleston Firefighter Support Team.
The group was created by the city of Charleston following the Sofa Super Store fire to help mend wounds suffered by the department in grief.
It remains intact today, and has expanded to include counseling for all firefighters dealing with everyday stresses.
Nearly six years later, the group is parting ways with the city of Charleston and becoming a nonprofit group.
Buell thinks his emotional instability started on June 18, 2007 — the night nine of his fellow firefighters perished inside the Sofa Super Store as it burned.
That, in itself, was emotionally draining. But for Buell, there was more heartache.
As a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team, Buell had pulled the bodies of his fallen colleagues out of the rubble and put them into bags.
It took a toll on the firefighting veteran who’d spent more than 20 years battling blazes, and it triggered a ticking time bomb inside him. “A fireman, we try to be pretty tough. We do a tough job. We try to suck it up. My situation, I did that many times.”
But all of that changed on March 25, 2008.
The car accident call Buell heard on his radio sounded like others he’d heard about. But later that afternoon, while at his station, he heard the details: A 22-year-old college student on her way to class was killed when an ambulance struck her car.
At that moment, Buell broke down in tears. That was his last day on the job. Later that day, a friend took him to the office of the Charleston Firefighter Support Team.
During his sessions, Buell spoke of the nightmares that would wake him during the night, his moodiness and isolation.
After some time visiting the counselors, Buell said he finally began to heal.
The Charleston Firefighter Support team, as it has existed, will transform into the Lowcountry Firefighter Support Team on July 1 as a nonprofit group. Peer counselors, who are firefighters trained in counseling, will remain internally at the city and others in the tri-county area are being trained for the regional group.
Gerald Mishoe, who’s been leading the support team for the last six years, hopes the move will expand its services to even more first responders beyond Charleston.
“This allows us to go out and raise money for the program,” Mishoe said.
In the last six years, the clinicians have counseled 403 people including firefighters and their families.
The team will continue receiving their funding from the city through the rest of this year. Charleston Fire Department Chief Karen Brack said she doesn’t yet know how much its will give next year.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the city will continue its support and make sure the group sticks around.
“Of course we will. We’ll make sure it continues and we think other governments, as well as private entities, will support it as well,” Riley said.
Since firefighters around the tri-county have been receiving help from the city’s team, it “becomes a regional load,” Brack said. By pulling partnerships together for a common cause, Brack hopes the system becomes more efficient and reaches more people.
Now retired, Tommy Buell is thankful for the team and said he hopes it lives on to comfort the men and women who spend their lives helping others.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.