As the midday sun beat down Wednesday, a trio of somber men trudged across a soggy, open field clutching bundles of crisp, new American flags in their hands.
Speaking few words, they moved through the freshly cut grass to deposit the flags in nine holders staked in the soil. Nine flags, each marking the spot where a man died.
The community will come together today to mark the second anniversary of the Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters on June 18, 2007. An open memorial, from 7 to 10 p.m., will be the first time the general public has been allowed onto the site at 1807 Savannah Highway since the fire.
Firefighters, city parks workers and others labored Wednesday to ready the site for what is expected to be a solemn, muted memorial. Workers erected a tent, trimmed the grass, spruced up markers for the nine men and hauled in other amenities. They wanted it to be just right, leaving nothing to chance. The weight of their activities was not lost upon them.
"We all know what happened on this site," said Kenny Lewis, a parks worker. "We know a lot of guys died trying to save others. It's tragic."
The firefighters died battling a trash fire that raced inside the massive furniture outlet and exploded into a rolling inferno. Flames chewed through the building, the air turned black and the roof collapsed. The blaze was the nation's deadliest firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001.
Battalion Chief Ricky Shriver was among those who returned to the site to help with preparations. He volunteered for the task, even though it roils his emotions every time he sets foot on the property.
"It's rough, but it's got to be done," he said, pursing his lips. "We will never forget our guys. Not as long as I have a breath left in my body."
Dan Young, acting captain of Engine 11, understands. He too was at the fire that night and lost friends. Still, he and his crew showed up Wednesday morning to help. "It's something that has to be done. You pay your respects to great people," he said.
Passing firetrucks and police cars honked their horns in support as they drove by. A few residents waved, as well. The crews kept on working, tending to their tasks and remembering the dead.
Tonight's ceremony will be a low-key affair, allowing people to offer remembrances in their own fashion. Firefighters and families of the fallen will have an hour of private time at the site before the gates open to the public. No speeches or presentations are planned. Fire Chief Thomas Carr will simply read the names of the nine men and a fire bell will ring for each. A quintet will play solemn selections during the event.
Mayor Joe Riley, a fixture at last year's memorial, is out of town and won't be attending, officials said. Riley visited the site on his own Tuesday night and laid roses at each spot where a fireman died.
No one is sure just how many people will show up for the memorial. Some firefighters are adamant about attending; others find it too hard to go back to the site. It will be up to them to choose. As for the public, its anyone's guess.
Gerald Mishoe, who heads the Charleston Firefighter Support Team, hopes to see a large turnout. The various investigations, lawsuits and debates surrounding the sofa store fire have at times obscured the sacrifice that was made, as well as the story of a fire department that has stood strong in the face of adversity, he said. Visiting the site brings everything into perspective, he said.
"I hope people will come. Standing on this ground is a very powerful, moving experience," Mishoe said. "I think if people can come, be part of this and stand here, they will have a much better understanding of what this is all about, what the Fire Department has been through and what the families have been through."