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James Lewis Alexander Jr.

City, family of fallen search for steel beams from sofa store site

On a steamy July day, Michael French's family stood before the charred ruins of the Sofa Super Store where he and eight other Charleston firefighters had gone to their deaths weeks before.

As his mother, Diane French, gazed into the debris, something in the twisted wreckage caught her eye. She pointed to a spot along the rear of the store warehouse and told her daughters to look.

A section of steel beams poked from the ruins in the shape of a cross. Melted metal siding curled around the beams like a shroud draped along the cross's arms. It seemed like a sign from God.

"She said, 'He was with Mikey. He had his arms around Mikey,' " said Jean Dangerfield, French's sister. "That made my mom feel so good. It made her feel like He was there with Mikey and the other eight guys. They weren't alone."

Family members mentioned the cross to Missy Green, who runs a Web page dedicated to the fallen Charleston firefighters. Green posted a photograph of the cross on the Internet. Word of the icon spread.

The French family and others hoped the cross might be preserved for a future memorial to the men who died June 18.

A similar effort had been launched in New York City after a steel cross was found in the rubble of the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Before they could act on the idea, however, demolition crews began tearing down the sofa store buildings Dec. 3. The section containing the steel cross was among the first areas to go.

Green sent Dangerfield an e-mail alerting her to the demolition. Dangerfield later called Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas to tell him what was happening.

Thomas was unaware that the family had hoped to preserve the cross. He urged her to go down to the site to talk to the contractor and to call him if he could be of help, she said. She and sister followed his advice.

"But by the time we got there, the whole back half of the building had been taken down and taken to a landfill for scrap," Dangerfield said.

Green said she and other supporters were alarmed to the learn the cross was gone.

"It's very upsetting," she said. "This was the fallen Charleston Nine's cross."

Mark Ruppel, public information officer for the Charleston Fire Department, said city officials are sympathetic to the family's wishes and are trying to help track down the cross to see what can be done.

The sofa store site and its contents are controlled by the store's owner, Herb Goldstein, who hired B&B Demolition Specialists to clear the property.

Dangerfield said she appreciates the city's help and hopes the cross can be salvaged.

Brandon Martin, B&B's owner, said that isn't likely. The 25-foot section that people saw as a cross had been blowing in the wind and was a clear hazard.

"That whole thing was completely unsafe," he said.

Martin said the debris was hauled to an unidentified scrap yard and is likely gone at this point.

"It's probably already in a furnace," he said.