‘Left by the wayside’ Not everyone is satisfied with memorial to fallen firefighters

Anne Mulkey, mother of fallen firefighter Louis Mulkey, reflects on his memory as she looks at a small cross left on his memorial Friday at the memorial garden off Savannah Highway.

Paul Zoeller

Ann Mulkey often drives from her Summerville home to the sprawling West Ashley property where her son and eight other firefighters perished on a June evening in 2007.

Capt. Louis Mulkey was buried elsewhere, but the Savannah Highway site where he died fighting an inferno is where his mother feels closest to his spirit.

“To me,” she said, “that’s his grave.”

But with no shade from the hot sun, no place to sit beside his marker and the roar of busy U.S. Highway 17 in her ears, Mulkey finds the site lacking as a proper memorial to the nine men who died in the massive Sofa Super Store fire. And as the sixth anniversary of the deadly blaze approaches, Mulkey wants to know why more hasn’t been done to improve the property.

“I’ve always felt strongly we need to finish this project, and it’s just been left by the wayside,” Mulkey said. “To me, this should be a priority. I think the city owes at least that much to those men.”

Four years ago, a 28-member city commission recommended redeveloping the 2.5-acre site at 1807 Savannah Highway as a garden-like memorial, a training and educational facility and a new Fire Department headquarters. No price tag was attached, but the project was expected to cost millions.

As an interim step, the city spent $45,000 in 2011 to sod and landscape the site with unique memorial markers for the nine men. But the larger project remains unfunded, with no timetable for completion.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said it’s not a lack of commitment that has kept the original project from going forward. Rather, people took a liking to the improvements made two years ago, and there seems to be more support for leaving the site in its current state, at least for the time being, he said.

“My sense is that the consensus is what we have done there is very nice, and that people are proud of it and appreciate it,” Riley said. “What we have there is a very nice place that is reposeful and soothing for the families and firefighters to come to.”

The city has not given up on the idea of creating a more elaborate, permanent memorial in the future, but “since the site has been so handsomely treated, there is not the same sense of urgency,” Riley said. Leaving the site as it is for a time also creates more opportunities for better ideas to come along for a permanent memorial, he said.

In the meantime, the site is open to visitors, and the city holds an annual ceremony there on June 18 to remember the men and the sacrifice they made.

As for the long-term, opinion remains mixed on what is best for the site. Some relatives of the fallen firefighters share Mulkey’s opinion, but others seem to like the park or are ambivalent about change.

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” said Herbert Drayton, whose brother died in the fire. “As long as I live, I will remember that spot, no matter what’s on it.”

Randy Hutchinson, who also lost his brother in the blaze, would prefer to see the city sell the property and generate some tax dollars. He said he would consider it a waste of taxpayer money to pour more funds into the site for a larger memorial.

“If someone dies in a wreck at an intersection, they don’t take the intersection away, do they?” he said. “All of these men have a grave somewhere. They don’t need an eternal flame out there.”

The site, located along a bustling commercial stretch of Savannah Highway, was home to a sprawling furniture outlet until the evening of June 18, 2007, when a trash fire raced inside the business and exploded into a rolling inferno. The men who died that night were trapped inside the building when the roof came crashing down.

The blaze was the nation’s deadliest firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001. It is thought to have been started by a discarded cigarette in the loading-dock area.

In 2008 the city bought the West Ashley property for $1.85 million and set aside $90,000 to pay for design plans. The city also formed a commission to come up with a plan for the property, with involvement from firefighters, families of the men who died, city officials and community members.

The resulting long-term plan called for a large, new building that would surround a permanent memorial garden on three sides. The building would be 25,000 to 32,000 square feet, with space for firefighter training, public education programs and a new headquarters for the Charleston Fire Department.

The panel presented the plan to City Council, and Riley said at the time that it “could not be more appropriate for this hallowed site.”

Some firefighters lauded the plan, while others expressed misgivings about training or being stationed at the site where the friends and colleagues died. There was also no clear idea where the money to pay for the project would come from.

Commission Chairman Jimmy Bailey recently described the planning as “one of the most emotional experiences of my life.” But he said knew at the time it would be difficult to carry out the plan with the economy mired in a recession.

“I told them at the time that the economy was heading south and it would probably be several years down the road before we saw any construction, and that has been the case,” he said.

At this point, there appears to be little support for building a large structure on the site, and the city already has abandoned the notion of relocating the Fire Department’s headquarters there. The administrative offices will soon be housed in a $6.5 million, 19,600-square-foot fire station being constructed at King and Heriot streets.

Still unclear is what will become of the boxes full of mementos and artifacts associated with the blaze that remain in storage at the Fire Department. Initial discussions for the site included talk of a museum room to display those items.

Mulkey said she is fine with the headquarters and training buildings going elsewhere. She would like to see something done to make the fire site more attractive and inviting, such as planting trees to provide shade and shield the site from the highway. A landscaper she knows is willing to sell the city fountains with little mark-up and install them at no cost, but the city hasn’t responded to her overtures to make that happen, she said.

“It needs a better look,” she said. “And it’s just not comfortable to go out there right now and sit for any length of time.”

Riley said the city is always open to suggestions, ideas and concerns. But he noted that other folks don’t want the site shielded from the road, preferring that it remain visible to the public.

Gerald Mishoe, director of the Lowcountry Firefighter Support Team, said fountains and other touches might be nice, but he agrees with Riley that most folks seem satisfied for the present with the space that has been created to remember the fallen.

“I think overall, they are very pleased with it,” he said. “It’s a very serene place, very respectful.”