Of the 9, French and Thompson had links to school
Students at Sangaree Elementary School aren't yet old enough to easily spell words such as bravery, courage and hero.
But the 800 kindergarten, first- and second-grade students do know that fallen firefighters Brandon Thompson and Michael French, along with seven other Charleston firefighters who died battling the Sofa Super Store blaze, serve as real-life definitions of those words.
Thompson and French had strong ties to the Berkeley school, and officials decided to honor both men at an assembly Wednesday morning. Students wore red firefighter hats, sang songs and greeted the firefighters' families. School officials also unveiled plaques in Thompson's memory that will be posted throughout the building and given to Berkeley's Pine Ridge Rural Fire Department and the Charleston Fire Department's Engine 10.
Thompson attended Sangaree from August 1985 through June 1989 and never forgot his elementary school. He returned to teach children about safety during the school's annual Fire Prevention Week and was a familiar face to many students, who got a kick out of seeing him aboard the big red fire truck and walking through the halls in his uniform.
"When he stepped foot inside this school, the kids' eyes would just light up," teacher Gloria McDonald said.
Thompson, who became a junior firefighter at the Pine Ridge department at the age of 14, always had a fascination with fighting fires. The 27-year-old served as a Charleston firefighter for four years and was engaged to be married on Oct. 7.
Thompson's mother, Diane White, is the principal of Goose Creek's Boulder Bluff Elementary School, adding to the family's connection to the Berkeley school district. After attending many memorial services this summer, White said Sangaree's assembly was one of the most touching because children participated and learned about her son's life.
"You never know the influence that you can have on a child," White said. "Firefighters are heroes to children anyway, but these children always will have a connection to Brandon. He's a firefighter that they knew."
Sangaree teachers presented necklaces with a number "9" charm surrounded by angels' wings to White, Thompson's fiancee Rachel Sheridan and to French's family members.
French's daughter Kyla just started kindergarten at Sangaree this year, and the ceremony also honored her dad's sacrifice. French, 27, had risen to the rank of assistant engineer with the Charleston Fire Department after only 1 1/2 years on the job.
Sangaree Principal Alan Wilson said teachers have been impressed by Kyla's ability to cope.
"She is a little trooper," Wilson said. "She stood up at the beginning of the year and told the rest of the class about what happened to her dad. She told them that he's gone to heaven now."
Although tears flowed, the focus was on celebrating firefighters' dedication to saving lives. Students recited poems and took turns at the microphone, where six pupils held up letters spelling "H-E-R-O-E-S."
Teacher Runette Ford, who helped organize the assembly and taught Thompson when he was a Sangaree student, said she hopes her students were able to comprehend at least some of the ceremony's message.
"We want them to follow their dreams," Ford said. "Brandon wanted to be a fireman, and he followed his dream. It was a dream that started here at Sangaree."
And if Sangaree students need a reminder, all they'll have to do is look at the plaques that will soon hang in the school's lobby. Engraved on one is the date of the fire along with a message that refers to Thompson, French and the others.
"All gave some, some gave all."