June 18, 2007, 7:36 p.m. — A firefighter calls “Mayday!” over his radio. Moments later, another voice from the radio says “Car One (the chief’s), please tell my wife ... ‘I love you.’ ” Another firefighter is heard saying “In Jesus’ name, amen.”
Those conversations took place almost eight years ago when nine Charleston firefighters died fighting a fire in a West Ashley furniture store.
So many new people have moved to our area since that defining moment in our city’s history, it seems appropriate to make sure they know that moment’s impact and why that stretch of U.S. Highway 17 South is considered hallowed ground.
“The Charleston 9,” they call them. The nine men who courageously attacked that fire represented more than 100 years of firefighting experience. The youngest was 27, the oldest was 56. They were husbands, fathers, grandfathers, coaches, brothers, uncles and neighbors. They were all connected and committed.
Fire experts would later criticize outdated tactics and aging equipment in assessing what happened that night. That’s not the purpose of this column. Those stories have been told many times. We’re here today to tell other stories that continue to shape us after nearly eight years.
Citadel grad T.A. Fulmer was living in Greenville when the Sofa Super Store fire erupted. His brother, Rob, worked at Engine 10 firehouse but had the day off and played golf in a fundraiser for another firefighter.
During the early evening hours, the Fulmer family kept trying to reach Rob, but he wasn’t answering his phone. At that time, it wasn’t unusual for off-duty firefighters to lend help if necessary. Television cameras on the scene constantly captured men in shorts and golf shirts unrolling hoses and running to help their brothers. Eventually, the family learned Rob also was there, trying to help.
T.A. drove to Charleston that weekend to give his younger brother a hug. Three years later, he became a firefighter himself.
A year after that, he married Christy, the daughter of Capt. Billy Hutchinson, a 30-year veteran of the department and one of the nine who died on that horrid summer night in 2007.
T.A. had known Christy since they attended C.E. Williams Middle School. He remembers giving her a folded note as a sixth-grader telling her how pretty she was. It would be decades later that they’d reconnect to the point of becoming husband and wife. How willing, though, would she be to embrace another firefighter?
In some respects, marrying a firefighter eventually helped Christy heal from the hurt of losing her father.
T.A. never met his future father-in-law, but Christy believes the two would have been good for each other. They shared two serious loves: Christy and golf.
Christy is now the sole caregiver of her father’s mom, Miss Dot. For years, Miss Dot worked in the fire marshal’s office and the chief’s office. This firehouse family lineage seems to stretch longer than the hoses on the back of those shiny red trucks.
There are certain things you never forget. I’ll always remember the 8,000 first responders from around the country who came in their fire engines, ladder trucks and ambulances to attend a memorial service. The North Charleston Coliseum will never be used for a greater purpose.
There were also the personal, makeshift memorials left at the curb near the fire property: nine little American flags, nine red roses or nine little stuffed puppies — all Dalmatians.
From my television reporting position across the street both that night and as the sun came up the next morning, there remain images of exhausted firefighters who lost their brothers and heartbroken parents who lost their sons. A grief-stricken chief who wouldn’t leave until the final hero was reclaimed from the ashes. A devastated mayor, normally so hopeful, struggling to find the right words to comfort his community.
Charleston’s history is rich and textured. The magnitude of this particular tragedy still impacts families and a community that lived through it. There’s an additional challenge to make sure we never forget it.
Reach Warren Peper at email@example.com.