Son to follow in dad's footsteps

Hunter Benke, 13, rings a bell mounted on a 1961 Mack C-85 firetruck.

Thirteen-year-old Hunter Benke is sure he's going to be a fireman when he gets older.

He's the son of Capt. Mike Benke, one of the nine who died two years ago in the Sofa Super Store fire that changed the way Charleston firefighters do business.

Hunter was picked to represent future firefighters during a ceremony bringing a restored 1961 firetruck back into service earlier this month. He wore a fireman's dress uniform he borrowed from the West Ashley station where his dad used to work.

"I grew up around the fire station, and I knew all the guys, so I guess I kind of grew into it," he said at his house several days after the ceremony.

A lot of boys say they're going to be firemen when they grow up. Then they grow up, and most realize there are less-dangerous ways to make a living and earn more money.

Hunter has certainly seen how dangerous it can be. But he's still on course.

"It just made me more of a firefighter," Hunter said, "because I could help prevent more things."

An eighth-grader at C.E. Williams Middle School, he recently declared fire science as his future track of study.

It's easy to see why Hunter would be following in his dad's footsteps. They were inseparable.

"Pretty much where you saw Mike, you saw Hunter connected," said his mother, Kim Benke, a nurse.

"I miss him a lot and the things we used to do together," Hunter said. "We would go to RiverDogs ball games. We would play catch. He would take me to soccer practice games. He would take me fishing. We would watch car races on TV."

Kim Benke's father, Raymond Cofield, has stepped in to fill the gap since Mike's death. He's teaching Hunter to hunt, as he did Hunter's 15-year-old sister, Taylor.

Two large deer heads are mounted on opposite walls in the living room. Hunter shot and skinned one of them and Taylor the other.

"If you teach somebody to hunt, you've fed them for life," Cofield said. "If they're out there hunting, they're not going to be into drugs."

"My grandfather and other family members help us whenever we need it." Hunter said. "My grandfather says he is on call 24/7. He says that other than God, nothing is as important as family."

Holidays always are a tough time when a family member is missing. Thanksgiving is especially hard for Kim Benke, since it's their anniversary.

"My mom is a nurse and worked a lot, so dad would help her with the chores," Hunter said. "He loved putting up decorations around the holidays and cooking out. Since my dad died, my mom is sad because she really misses my dad."

Hunter will be putting up the Christmas decorations this year. Mike Benke always went all out for Christmas, and Hunter will, too.

"It's going to look like James Island County Park," Hunter said.

He's also looking forward to driving his dad's pickup, a red 2001 Chevy Silverado.

After Hunter returned the uniform to the station after the ceremony, he said he looks forward to the day when he will have his own.

"I'll be wearing that uniform again," he said.

Kim Benke nods her head.

"There is something about it," she said. "When they put that uniform on, they all of a sudden become tall and proud."

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or