Remembering the Fallen Firefighters

William "Billy" Hutchinson

BILLY HUTCHINSON

We 'hope we can be moving on'

Randy Hutchinson still feels the pain of losing his brother, Captain William H. "Billy" Hutchinson III, and thinks that all the facts about the tragic fire have not been disclosed.

The grim anniversary reminds the fire captain's family that they can never put the loss behind them, but perhaps they can see their way to the future, Randy Hutchinson said.

"We are glad it's coming up to a year. We're not happy about the way things have gone but hope we can be moving on," he said.

Phyllis, the fire captain's widow, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit last year.

Randy Hutchinson said that since the fire, parts of his brother's family no longer see each other. Billy Hutchinson's 31-year-old daughter from a previous marriage is the mother of a boy, 9, and twin girls, 14. Randy said he hasn't seen them in a long time.

Randy remains critical of the fire department and Mayor Joe Riley. He thinks both are to blame for an ill-prepared fire department and that both have failed to come clean about the fatal fire.

EARL DRAYTON

'I don't want to erase him'

He comes in dreams, the wail of a fire engine siren, a song on the radio.

Family members of James "Earl" Drayton remember him in their own way.

Thelma Mitchell feels her brother's loss with every new report on the blaze, every debate over the Fire Department.

A James Brown song is all it takes and she's lost in daydream. He loved James Brown.

Sandra Drayton always confided in her older brother. She can't bring herself to delete his phone number. "I don't want to erase him. It's hard to accept that he is gone."

She plans to celebrate what would have been his 58th birthday next month.

Vernon Drayton still harbors anger about the loss of his brother

Jacqueline Drayton watches her wedding video. Her daddy walked her down the aisle. She clings to the memory of her hand in his on the first dance.

The family's grieving is complicated by an ongoing legal battle over Drayton's death benefits. It's driven a wedge between Drayton's widow, Kim, and the rest of the family.

MARK KELSEY

'The hardest times have been missing his calls'

His grave has no headstone, yet. His disparate families remain distant. His companion, who felt off-to-the-side during the public mourning of Mark Kelsey, still can't talk about him without crying.

It's left her lonely, Christine Prevatte said.

Kelsey's teenage son, the recipient of the donations and payments, has been shielded from public exposure by his mother, from whom Kelsey was divorced.

Family members Kelsey left behind in Washington, Ind., where he is buried, still are working on a tombstone.

"The hardest times have been missing his calls to just say 'hey' or raz us about a NASCAR race, and especially the holidays for all of us to hear from him — Mother's Day was especially hard on (Kelsey's mother) Paula," said Patty Kelsey, Kelsey's sister-in-law via e-mail.

At Ashley River Fire Department, where Kelsey was a captain, firefighters have had enough of rumors that Internet bloggers keep recycling.

"They just won't let things lie," Capt. Wayne Sammons said.

MELVIN CHAMPAIGN

'I just put him in the hands of God'

Melvin Champaign's mother didn't plan to attend services marking the first anniversary of the Sofa Super Store fire; she expected to stay at home on James Island, thinking about her son.

"I'll be right here with the grace of God," Stella Champaign Ragin said. "I just put him in the hands of God because I can't bring him back."

Champaign's grave overlooks the marsh to the south of James Island, where he grew up and a street has long borne the family name.

He spent years working in Washington state but returned home and became a firefighter about two years before the fatal fire.

In addition to fighting fires, Champaign was an aspiring minister. He would have graduated this year with a bachelor's degree in theology. Alpha & Omega Bible College dean Paul Johnson II said students gave one classmate a nickname because he acts so much like Champaign.

"We call him Melvin Junior," Johnson said, "the bubbly guy with the big smile, always the joy of the class."

LOUIS MULKEY

'It's been a nightmare, to say the least'

The nights bother Ann Mulkey most.

She relaxes and looks at pictures of her son, Capt. Louis Mulkey, around her Summerville home and the memories come.

"It's been a nightmare, to say the least. It's something you don't get over in a year's time," she said. "You just don't ever dream you will lose a child."

A year later, Mulkey's parents both still expect their son to walk through the back door and talk to them about the kids he coached at Summerville High School.

The Mulkeys have stayed in touch with firefighters and Mulkey's former players. They stop in and visit, sharing their stories about Captain and Coach Mulkey.

But the underlying pain, that might never fade.

"That's just not something you ever get over," she said.

A rift between the Mulkeys' and Louis' widow, Lauren Bennett Mulkey, is an added burden. They haven't spoken since the burial, Ann Mulkey said.

"That makes it so much harder when there is so much turmoil underneath."

MIKE BENKE

'I just miss him as my friend'

Kim Benke, widow of firefighter Mike Benke, said she and her two kids are doing OK but that she doesn't like being a single parent.

The lawn, the pool, the laundry were things he used to do. The out-of-town soccer game schedule is tougher to keep up. It saddens her that he won't walk their daughter, Taylor, 14, down the aisle when she marries. Hunter, 11, can't play baseball with his dad. "The teachers have been very good and patient with him (Hunter)," she said.

She thinks of how his daughter Holly Gildea's kids won't get to grow up with their granddad.

"I'm very thankful for what we do have. I just miss him as my friend. We just think of all the things we're going to miss by not having him in our life. It's definitely been a hard year," she said.

Her family and church have been a tremendous help, as well as her co-workers at the Veterans Administration Medical Center where she is a surgical nurse. "I think it's all getting final now. And you realize it's for real," she said. "This too shall pass, I hope."

BRANDON THOMPSON

'There's been a huge void, just a great void'

The family of Brandon Thompson will visit his grave site and attend memorial services, just like they did a year ago.

"We'll spend the day reflecting about Brandon," one of his brothers, Jeffery Thompson, said.

The passage of time will not make the day any easier.

"Last year, at the memorial service at the coliseum, we were all still in shock about the fire," Thompson said.

He expects Wednesday to be "more raw and more emotional because you feel that whole year of missing them."

"This year there's been a huge void, just a great void, because I spent so much time with him. Brandon and I were together every day," he said.

In addition to being a Charleston firefighter, Brandon Thompson was a captain at the volunteer Pine Ridge Fire Department, where his brother is deputy chief.

"I think it would be appropriate for anyone out and about on Wednesday to stop by and say thank you or shake a fireman's hand," he said.

BRAD BAITY

'It's his presence we miss the most'

Sharon Robertson was angry at first. "I kept asking why he had to die."

She was so close to her younger brother, Brad Baity. They loved talking about each other's kids and food. "He was my little baby."

Like fire, anger can be difficult to control, and after her brother died, she tried to hold that anger close. "But I knew it would eat me up and make me bitter."

She thinks about him all the time and still chokes up at his memory. "Our family is close, and we talk about him amongst ourselves — how Brad did this or that, the foods he liked."

It's easier some days to talk than others. Some days his loss comes as a jolt, like the day she found out her daughter was pregnant. She called people about the good news. "I went to Brad's number and it dawned on me that he wasn't there."

She thinks of Brad when a fire truck rolls by, when she goes to Home Depot, one of Brad's favorite places.

"It's his presence we miss the most. I cry myself to sleep every night, and I know my brother and parents and his kids do, too."

MICHAEL FRENCH

'It still feels like yesterday to us'

The mother, sisters and two children of Ladder Co. 5 assistant engineer Michael French have gone through highs and lows as they adjusted during the past year.

Some low points included staying up all night reading the report about what went wrong and experiencing frustration as authorities couldn't pinpoint the fire's cause.

Others were the recent resignation of Chief Rusty Thomas, whom the family loved even as it learned of the department's shortcomings.

The highs included the steady outpouring of sympathy, a family Christmas getaway to Maggie Valley, N.C., and the renaming of part of Savannah Highway in honor of the Charleston Nine — a suggestion made by French's sister Jean Dangerfield.

The family isn't looking forward to the anniversary but said bonding with other families has made all the difference. "I think we've been strong. All of the families have been very strong," Dangerfield said. "It still feels like yesterday to us. There is nothing normal about our life anymore."