A trip to the mountains to heal. A lonely motorcycle ride on Lowcountry roads. A graveside visit with prayers and poinsettias. The families of the nine Charleston firefighters killed in the Sofa Super Store blaze are trying to cope with their loss in different ways this Christmas.
Six months have passed since the deadly fire on June 18 in West Ashley, but the wounds remain fresh for the families of the fallen, the voids difficult to fill.
To the community at large, these men have come to be known as the Charleston Nine. But they were more than that to the people who knew them. They were fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, friends. Their absence is impossible to ignore as their families come together to mark the holiday.
Behind every tree and decoration is a memory of Christmases past. The smell of Earl Drayton's sweet potatoes. Melvin Champaign's laughter at his Bible class' holiday dinner. Mike Benke cutting out paper stars to stick on his family's presents.
Tender memories in a hard time.
Families and friends of eight fallen firefighters spoke with The Post and Courier about their plans for the upcoming holiday and how they are coping in the most difficult of times. The newspaper attempted to reach the family of firefighter Brad Baity as well but had received no response by press time.
Holly Gildea, 31, lives off Savannah Highway near where her father, Capt. Mike Benke, died fighting the Sofa Super Store fire.
"I cry every other day. It's hard," she said. "This was daddy's favorite time of year. This year, not having him around for that, is really sad."
Her kids, Kayla, 9, and Christopher, 6, know what happened. "They know that's where 'Cappy' died. If they say something, we'll talk about it," she said.
Gildea and her husband, John, also have a 3-month-old baby, Julieanne, who was born three months to the day after Benke died fighting the fire. "She'll never get to play on the truck at the fire station like I did," Gildea said.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, she quit watching the news because it upset her too much, and she was worried it was bad for the baby.
Kayla said granddad tickled her. "I laughed so much," she said. They played tricks on him, like the time they put a fake spider in his bed. They remembered visiting him at Station 16, and climbing on the fire truck. "I liked where the steering wheel is," Christopher said. He also remembered riding a four-wheeler with granddad.
Gildea was Benke's oldest child. He helped her rip out carpet at her home not long before he died. When word spread of the massive fire, she knew something wasn't right when she couldn't reach her father on his cell phone. She learned his fate just after midnight when there was a knock on the door.
Kayla and Christopher remembered Cappy's holiday cheer. "He would let me get up on his shoulders. He would put lights on his house like (the movie) 'Deck The Halls,'" Kayla said. Cappy had Santa, Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in his yard. He made paper stars to decorate presents they wrapped.
Melvin Champaign's crowd didn't do holiday parties. They did Christmas gatherings.
For his classmates at Alpha & Omega Bible College, a holiday without Christ wasn't much of a holiday at all.
They are spending this season without their friend, the late fireman with a trademark phrase, "To God be the glory." Both comic and serious, Champaign dressed his bubbly personality in dapper clothes and a signature smile.
"We are forever grateful he crossed our path," said the bible college dean, Paul Johnson II.
If not for the June 18 fire that took his life, Champaign surely would have been seated alongside a dozen others Thursday at Faith Tabernacle, a North Charleston church about the size of an average house. Under a glittering popcorn ceiling, students publicly agonized over an exam. Johnson, their teacher, punctuated a lesson with resounding "c'mon y'alls" and illustrated a point about studying The Book by tossing a tattered Bible to a student.
Classmates had become family for Champaign, who also had many relatives on James Island and three children in Washington state. The relationship was literal for one audience member, his uncle and pastor, the Rev. Hercules Champaign of James Island United Congregational Church.
"He was one of a kind," he said of the nephew who directed the church choir and played keyboards. "You couldn't keep up with him."
Melvin Champaign would have graduated in March. Classes meet twice weekly for three-hour sessions. But Thursday's was cut short — to an hour — to leave room for the annual Christmas gathering at Ryan's Family Steakhouse, a buffet-style restaurant on West Ashley's St. Andrews Boulevard.
"If he were here tonight, he would have everybody laughing," Johnson said. Before the meal, Champaign would have asked if everybody had what they needed, and shouted, "To God be the glory."
Michael French's mother, wife, sisters and their children won't stay in Berkeley County this Christmas. Instead, the 11 of them plan to get away and celebrate the holiday in Maggie Valley, N.C.
"We're doing OK," said his sister, Brandi Clark. "We're taking it day by day, one day at a time."
Clark said the family has appreciated all the support they have received from friends and others in the community. The calls and cards have meant a lot.
But she said some of them were hurt by some comments posted on Charleston.net in response to a recent news story. The story was about a "cross" formed from steel beams they saw in the burned ruins of the Sofa Super Store — a cross that wasn't saved when crews began tearing down the building. Some comment posters dismissed the sighting and chided the family for finding religious symbolism in the ruins.
"A lot of people went online and posted some really nasty things and were being really ugly to us," Clark said. "I shot back at a few of them."
French's 18-month-old son Aiden still doesn't understand what happened to his dad, but the past several months have been harder for his 6-year-old daughter Kyla.
"She has her moments. She comes and goes," Clark said. "She really misses him and wants him to come back so she can see him."
As for how people can help in the future, Clark was less sure.
"I'm kind of hoping some things will start settling down," she said. "I don't want anyone to forget them, but I want it to mellow out some and let us get used to it, too."
Even during December's frenzy, Earl Drayton would display his trademark, effortless smoothness in every thing he did, peeling off cash to buy presents, cooking a holiday ham, waving nonchalantly as he rolled past the in the city's annual Christmas parade.
In life, Drayton exuded calm and epitomized the steely nerves of a firefighter. Now, his absence blares loudly in a house full of joyous decorations.
This year, the candied smell of his sweet potatoes won't waft from the kitchen.
This year's city Christmas parade didn't seem right without Drayton driving Mayor Joe Riley along in the procession, slow and easy. Arthur Grant said his dad treasured the parade duty. "Around here, that's like driving the president."
Grant still remembers the year his dad bought him a toy fire truck for Christmas. The little red engine looked just like the real one his daddy rode.
Evelyn Grant-Mack remembers Christmases at her daddy's fire station: the presents, the firefighters' kids running around.
Jacqueline Drayton will miss bringing Christmas treats to the station where her father and the rest of the guys would divvy up slices of lemon and vanilla cake.
Drayton worked most Christmases. Last year was one of the few times he was off, said his sister, Thelma Mitchell.
The whole family got together last Christmas. Though Drayton had children from different marriages, everyone came together to celebrate.
Kimberly Drayton said her husband went all out on his grandchildren last year. Trains, tricycles and games. They wonder where he has gone.
There's no getting used to his absence. His quiet spirit was that strong, his generosity that natural.
Sometimes, Jeffery Thompson feels like it's still June 18 and he just got through speaking with his younger brother, Brandon Thompson.
"I talked to him two hours before the fire," Jeffery said while standing in the bay of the volunteer Pine Ridge Fire Department, where he is deputy chief and Brandon was a captain.
The months since the blaze have been numb and kind of surreal, Jeffery said. The station on Myers Road in Summerville is nothing but a reminder of his brother. But Jeffery never considered staying away.
"I found myself coming to the fire station every day that week," he said. "It allowed me to think. I think there was no better place for comfort."
After a couple of months of memorials and events that dwelled on the tragedy, it was time to get back to business.
"I said, 'Let's focus on being a fire department again,' " Jeffery said. It was what Brandon and Michael French, who was also a volunteer captain at Pine Ridge, would have wanted, he said.
They established the Michael French and Brandon Thompson Memorial Fund to buy thermal imaging cameras that help firefighters locate hot spots and hidden flames. They bought a camera for their station on Jedburg Road and one for the Eadytown Fire Department, where French once served. The manufacturer donated another camera. Each camera bears the names of the two fallen firefighters.
There are still times when Jeffery finds himself awake at 3 a.m. watching memorial videos on the Internet or picking up a new T-shirt honoring the nine firefighters.
Christmas will be hardest on his parents, he said. The Thompson brothers are accustomed to working shifts and missing holidays. Frank Thompson IV is a Dorchester County sheriff's deputy and Jeffery also is a conductor for Norfolk Southern Railroad.
"I'm sure I am working Christmas," he said, "and if not, I'll be around to answer calls."
At some point around Christmas, Ann Mulkey will drive to the ruins of the Sofa Super Store and park her minivan beside the chain link that surrounds the rubble. There, she will say a few words to her fallen son and then offer a prayer.
Mulkey knows it might sound strange to some. But she finds solace in the place where her son, Capt. Louis Mulkey, lost his life on a humid night.
"It's a horrible sight to see, yes, but then that is where they died," Mulkey said. "That is where I feel him more."
In her mind, she blocks out the wreckage and envisions a memorial on the charred ground. She pictures a structure resembling a fire station with rooms for a museum and visiting firefighters and their families to stay.
On Christmas, Louis Mulkey would frequently fill in for other firefighters so they could spend time with their children. But he often made it home for a Christmas Eve dinner.
"We're still devastated and we will be for a long time," Ann Mulkey said. "It's going to be very hard this Christmas."
They still feel Louis' presence around them. Mulkey and her oldest son, Wayne, sometimes mistake strangers on the street for Louis, if just for a second. "I just see him everywhere I go," Wayne said to his mother.
Mike Mulkey finds himself expecting his son to come through the front door.
Louis' parents find some comfort in going to the Summerville High School games their son would have coached and meeting with the kids who looked up to him. They visit Louis' grave each week. His mom stops by the site of the fire whenever she can.
It started the week after Louis' death. She and a friend walked along the sidewalk lined with floral wreaths. As she neared a utility pole a wreath fell at her feet. " 'That's Louis,' " Ann Mulkey told her friend. " 'He doesn't want me to leave.' So we stayed, we stayed for a while."
The family of Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson III won't be gathering at their mother's house for Christmas like they would have done in previous years, Billy's brother, Randy, said recently. With the loss of his brother in the Sofa Super Store fire, the day wouldn't hold the same meaning.
Randy Hutchinson is also closely watching how the investigation of the fire goes. He expressed some anger that more than six months after the fire, the comprehensive report on the blaze hasn't been released.
"If it wasn't willful lack of command, then what was it?" he said of the conduct outside the store that night, adding, "All that matters is the first 30 minutes of the fire."
Capt. Hutchinson, 48, was the most senior firefighter in years of service — 30 years — to die at the Sofa Super Store.
Phyllis Hutchinson, the mother of two of Billy's three daughters, said they will stick with a traditional Christmas but also seek to honor the father the girls lost.
"We have a lot of firemen ornaments and we'll put them on the tree," she said. They also plan to take poinsettia flowers to Billy's graveside.
Christine Prevatte will ride her motorcycle alone. The phone call to Indiana won't come. "It's very depressing," she said. "I know all the families' members feel that way. It's very lonely."
Christmas for firefighter Mark Kelsey would have been a long ride on the chopper he loved, with his girlfriend riding alongside. He'd call home to Indiana and speak to each member of his family. He'd ask his two brothers how they fared with deer hunting and make sure he could anticipate a package of summer sausage in the mail.
Kelsey had made the trip back to Indiana once since he moved to Charleston. He hated the cold and snow. He'd celebrate with Christine, in their apartment.
She hasn't had the heart to decorate this year, except to hang an ornament her parents gave her on the portrait of Mark that she keeps. It's a dove, with an inscription that says the ones you miss are still with you in spirit.
Brad Baity, who served as an engineer at Station No. 16, left behind his wife, Heather, and a young son, Noah. The Marine Corps veteran had been a firefighter for nine years.