COLUMBIA — Greer Fire Chief Chris Harvey would just as soon never attend another service like the one held here Wednesday to honor 11 South Carolina firefighters who died in the line of duty last year, including the nine killed in the Sofa Super Store blaze.
The annual ceremony is a reminder that the firefighting profession, despite major technological advancements and relentless emphasis on safety over the years, continues to lose members in tragedies that are often preventable.
South Carolina led the country in firefighter deaths last year, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the nation's 114 on-duty fatalities.
In addition to the nine men killed in the June 18 sofa store fire in West Ashley, the state's grim toll included
Wagener firefighter Jeffrey Swartz and U.S. Forest Service firefighter Kenneth Patrick Fahey.
The names of all 11 were added to the firefighters' memorial at the S.C. Fire Academy. The memorial plaza now includes 90 names.
Harvey, president of the State Association of Fire Chiefs, said the memorial will remain a sacred place to those whose family and friends are memorialized here, but the list must stop growing.
"It wouldn't hurt anybody here today to never add another name to that wall," he said. "It's our vision to have zero firefighter deaths in this state."
Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas stood solemnly before the newly unveiled plaque that lists the names of his nine men. "This is a place you wish you never had to come," he said.
Thomas said after the ceremony that he is committed to improving his department. "I will make it better in honor of those nine guys."
Randy Hutchinson, brother of fallen firefighter Capt. Billy Hutchinson, said the ceremony was moving, but he is frustrated that nearly 10 months after the fire so much remains unknown about the death of his brother and his comrades. "I hate like hell we have to be here. I want answers."
Several firefighters noted that the somber service comes as the profession anxiously awaits the results of a consulting panel's investigation into what went wrong at the fire. The report, said to be a comprehensive account of that tragic night, is expected this month.
The firefighters' chaplain, the Rev. Gene Ball, said the service was a time to honor those who died and asked firefighters "not to use this time as a political forum, not to point the finger of blame."
During the service, state firefighting leaders placed a wreath in front of a bronze statue that depicts a masked firefighter carrying a small child to safety.
Eleven firefighters, representing each of the fallen, participated in a procession. Each carried a white firefighters helmet as a speaker read the names of the fallen.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and several city firefighters attended.
Former North Charleston firefighter Gerald Mishoe heads the firefighter association's counseling unit, which has provided a variety of support to the families left behind after the Charleston fire.
After the ceremony, Mishoe asked reporters not to approach family members because the ceremony marked the first large-scale memorial service since the one held immediately after the fire.
"It's part of the grieving process," he said.
Reach Ron Menchaca at email@example.com or 937-5724.