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Charleston still mourns loss of 9 firefighters 15 years after deadly sofa store blaze

For years after the deadly Sofa Super Store fire, Donovan Richardson couldn’t bring himself to attend memorials on the sprawling site where nine of his fellow Charleston firefighters perished on June 18, 2007. It was just too emotionally gutting.

Richardson had been off-duty that evening. Still, he raced to Savannah Highway to help as an inferno roared through the cavernous furniture outlet. Many others did the same. But there was little they could do as a cauldron of flames consumed the building and sent the roof crashing down on the men trapped inside.

Richardson now holds the rank of captain and commands a crew based at a fire station built feet from where the store once stood. Nine towering windows in the engine bay look out on the site of the worst tragedy in the department’s history.

The proximity to that hallowed ground still stirs deep emotions in Donovan, particularly around the anniversary of the epic fire. But 15 years out, he and others who were there that night feel a solemn responsibility to keep alive the memory of the fallen and make sure the legacy and lessons from that piercing loss are not forgotten.

“Eventually, there is not going to be any of us left who were there at that fire,” Donovan said. “So we try to instill in (newer firefighters) that this is something you need to remember.”

Of the 246 Charleston men and women who were with the department when the fire occurred, 58 remain on a force that has grown to 369 strong. Each passing year, the number of “legacy firefighters” grows smaller as more people retire or move on. But memories of the fire remain fresh, raw and vivid for many in those ranks.

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The new Charleston Fire Station 11 is located next to the Charleston 9 Memorial Park on June 15, 2022, the site of the 2007 deadly Sofa Super Store fire. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

A deadly inferno

The land where the store once stood is now a flat swath of green grass and American flags tucked amid Savannah Highway’s bustling corridor of strip malls, car dealerships and gas stations.

But on a sweltering summer evening 15 years ago, smoke, flames and fear boiled from this plot of earth. Within an hour, a small trash fire on a loading dock grew into an all-consuming beast that devoured the store and overwhelmed the fire crews struggling to contain it.

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The nine Charleston firefighters who died in the Sofa Super Store fire on June 18, 2007, are Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, James "Earl" Drayton, Michael French, William "Billy" Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson. 

The roof soon collapsed atop the firefighters inside, killing captains Mike Benke, Billy Hutchinson and Louis Mulkey; engineers Brad Baity and Mark Kelsey; assistant engineer Mike French; and firefighters Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton and Brandon Thompson.

At the time, this was the greatest single loss of firefighters since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Their deaths struck a deep nerve in the city and in firehouses across the nation. The loss also shook a proud, tradition-bound fire department, one that hadn’t experienced a line-of-duty casualty since 1965.

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A firefighter walks in front of the burning Sofa Super Store in Charleston on June 18, 2007. Nine firefighters died fighting the fire which destroyed the store and a warehouse. File/Staff

In the months that followed, grief gave way to anger, finger-pointing, multiple investigations and great change. The city pumped millions of dollars into the fire department to improve staffing, training, tactics and equipment. The department that emerged from the tragedy bore little resemblance to the one that preceded it. But all involved vowed never to forget the nine men whose death set all this in motion.

Fire Chief Dan Curia, who has led the department since 2018, said he marveled from afar at the resolve and resilience displayed by Charleston firefighters in the wake of so much sorrow and scrutiny. That is part of what drew him to Charleston after a 28-year career in North Carolina.

“Any one of the things this fire department went through could have knocked them down. And if they didn’t get up, no one would have blamed them,” he said. “But by reinventing themselves, they really influenced the American fire service as a whole for the better.”

An 'emotional place to be'

The midday sun bore down on the former sofa store property on a recent afternoon as Virginia firefighter Brad Thomas led his family through the memorial park that now occupies the site.

The family was on its way to watch his son play in a baseball tournament when Thomas suggested a short detour to see the park. Thomas, a 30-year veteran of the fire service, felt a connection, as he was badly burned in a 2007 flashover just months before the Sofa Super Store blaze. He wanted to see this place, tell his children what happened there and pay his respects to those who died.

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Laney Thomas and her family, including brother Liam Thomas, 2, visiting from Virginia, make a stop at the Charleston 9 Memorial Park on June 15, 2022, The park, which was the site of the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire, claimed the lives of nine Charleston firefighters, now honored by the nine long glass windows overlooking the park from the new Fire Station 11. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

“This is just a very emotional place to be,” he said, wiping his eyes as he stood below an American flag rustling in a thin breeze.

Many more people are expected to gather at the park at 7 p.m. June 18 for a somber memorial to the fallen firefighters. As in years past, representatives will ring a bell and recite the names of the men who died, then pause for reflection.

Missing from this year’s event will be a woman who made it her mission to keep alive the memory of the nine. Ann Mulkey, who lost her son in the fire, died in March at the age of 76.

Right up until her death, the woman known as Mama Mulkey kept pushing the city to do more to spruce up the memorial site and finally find a place to display the donated mementos and artifacts associated with the deadly fire. Those items have been packed away in storage boxes for years at the fire department.

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Ann Mulkey, mother of fallen firefighter Louis Mulkey, reflects on his memory as she looks at small cross left on his memorial in June 2013 at the memorial garden off Savannah Highway. File/Staff

The city bought the 2.5-acre property for $1.85 million in 2008. It later spent $150,000 to landscape the site and add unique memorial markers for the nine men on the spots where they were found. Year after year, Mulkey was the most consistent voice among those who advocated for more trees, benches and other improvements.

“She had no qualms at all about jumping right into his chili over that site,” her son, Wayne Mulkey, said of her discussions with Mayor John Tecklenburg. “My mom became hyper-focused on making sure the city did right by those guys.”

Wayne Mulkey drove nine hours from his Florida home to attend the memorial service. He said he fully intends to pick up where his mother left off in pushing for enhancements to the park.

Curia said city officials are already planning those fixes.

The first priority was finishing Fire Station No. 11, which opened adjacent to the site last August, Curia said. Now attention is turning to the memorial park. Fire officials walked the site with the mayor and city staffers a couple of months ago to get a sense of what could be done there.

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Charleston Fire Chief Dan Curia takes a closer look at a plaque created by Josh Wright and donated to the new Charleston Fire Station 11 located next to the Charleston 9 Memorial Park on June 15, 2022, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Planned improvements will be vetted within the fire department and with the families of the nine before a final proposal is unveiled, Curia said. But the chief said it could well include the shade trees and benches Ann Mulkey favored, along with an engraved brick walkway that a group of firefighters has been raising money for.

Curia said he would also like to see markings that delineate the edges of the former sofa store to give people a better sense of the building’s size, the challenges the crews faced and where the nine men were found. That would serve as a valuable educational tool for firefighters visiting the site, he said.

The city expects the work will cost about $500,000. Some $320,000 has already been set aside for the project, including $50,000 in donations that reside in a fund managed by the Coastal Community Foundation, according to city spokesman Jack O'Toole. 

“This would be the first real step toward building that site out,” Curia said. “We owe it to them to do that.”

Legacy and lessons

The legacy of the fire extends far beyond the borders of the park, of course. Curia said he sees its presence in nearly every aspect of the fire department’s operations, from the number of firefighters on each truck to the gear they carry and the training they undergo. It’s studied by experts, and its lessons are taught in firehouses from coast to coast.

The fire’s aftermath also shined a bright light on the need for mental health services to help firefighters and other first responders cope with the stress and tragedies they encounter.

As head of the Charleston Firefighter Support Team, which offered counseling and other aid, Gerald Mishoe saw the strain on the fire crews struggling to process the deaths, the fallout from the fire investigations and an entirely new way of doing their jobs.

The support team started with Mishoe and three mental health clinicians. Over time, that network has grown to 85 peer team members and 25 clinicians serving first responders in 23 of the state’s 46 counties. They assist as many as 6,000 people a year, Mishoe said.

“The Charleston 9 have had such a big impact on the fire service in this state and elsewhere,” he said.

David Griffin, the fire department's assistant chief of administration, can attest to that. He spends much of his spare time traveling the country talking about the Sofa Super Store fire, the friends he lost that day and what his department has learned from the tragedy. So far, he has spoken to groups in 43 states, Canada and Mexico. Wherever he goes, people are eager to listen.

Back at home, Griffin worries that as time passes, the deadly fire will become more of a story that is told than an event that was lived by those within the department. For him, it remains all too real.

Fifteen years ago, Griffin was among those scrambling to help as he worked the pump controls of Engine 11. He was new to the role, unfamiliar with the truck and quickly realized that his training hadn’t prepared him for a fire of this magnitude. When a portion of the building’s façade collapsed, narrowly missing him and his truck, he knew they were in deep trouble.

Griffin keeps a passel of photos from that day posted on a wall directly across from his desk in fire headquarters to constantly remind him of the sacrifices made and the journey forward in the time since. He said he arrives for work energized to carry on that mission, which he considers his life's work.

“I am happy I am still here, and I am proud that I am still here for all the right reasons,” he said. “I want to make it better.”

At Engine Co. 11, Richardson feels much the same.

His new station has plenty of touches that honor the fallen. An emblem bearing two axes, a large “9” and “6-18-07” hangs in the station’s main entrance. A bell hanging outside rings nine times each day. A new display case houses nine helmets representing each man who died and the companies they hailed from. 

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The historic bell from Station One is seen above the Charleston Fire Department's new Station 11 on Aug. 20, 2021, in West Ashley. Every morning at 9 a.m. the bell strikes 9 times in memory of the fallen firefighters who lost their lives in the the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire that occurred on the evening of June 18, 2007. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Richardson appreciates these touches, as well as being able to see the memorial from the station windows. But he also welcomes the state-of-the-art command training center that provides classroom space where firefighters can learn to do their jobs as safely and effectively as possible. And if sharing lessons from the fire will help, he is more than happy to do that, as well. It’s all about seeing his crews go home to their families at the end of each shift, he said.

Though Richardson has now attended annual memorials over the years, this June 18 will mark the first shift he has worked at the new station on the anniversary of the deadly blaze. He’s not sure how he will feel that day, but he knows one thing for certain:

“We are still going to get on that truck and go out when the alarm sounds.”

Charleston fire station dedicated to deadly Sofa Super Store blaze officially opens

Building bridges

Under Curia, the fire department has made more efforts to reconnect with its retirees and involve them in events, building bridges and continuity between the past and future. 

On a recent June morning, this cross-generational crowd and their extended families filled the auditorium at West Ashley High School to watch 23 recruits graduate from training and receive their fire department badges.

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Veteran firefighters with the City of Charleston lay hands on and pass a new badge that will be pinned on graduate recruit Hunter Benke during the Charleston Fire Department graduation ceremony for Recruit Class 22-01 held at West Ashley High School on June 10, 2022, in Charleston. Veterans who were part of the department at the time of the Sofa Super Store fire passed the badge for Hunter Benke, who lost his father Mike Benke in the fire in 2007. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Among those in attendance was former Chief Rusty Thomas, who headed the fire department during the Sofa Super Store fire and retired amid division over his leadership. He was joined by several other retired commanders, one of whom had a son joining the department’s ranks that day.

Another new recruit also shared a familiar name. Hunter Benke was a young boy when his father, Capt. Mike Benke, died in the Sofa Super Store fire.

When his name was called, a number of men rose from the crowd and lined up along one side of the auditorium. One by one, the 58 firefighters who remain from the time of the Sofa Super Store fire passed Benke’s badge down the line, placing hands on its silver surface and offering prayers for his safety.

Retired Battalion Chief Buddy Aytes, whose territory included the station where Benke’s father last served, then took the stage. On behalf of the retirees, he presented Hunter Benke with a leather helmet known for its protective strength.

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On behalf of the retirees of the Charleston Fire Department former City of Charleston Battalion Chief Buddy Aytes hands a “New Yorker” fire helmet to Hunter Benke during the Charleston Fire Department graduation ceremony for Recruit Class 22-01 held at West Ashley High School on June 10, 2022, in Charleston. The retirees wanted to give him the special helmet as a show of respect for Benkes’ father who died in the Sofa Super Store fire in 2007. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Benke stood stoically before the crowd, looking much like his father in his younger days, as the packed auditorium applauded.

Curia urged the recruits to serve their community with care and compassion, as their predecessors had done. And to never forget: They stand on the shoulders of giants.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.