Twitty Meyer leaned against a chain-link fence Friday, dabbing at her eyes as she watched Charleston firefighters walk the scarred earth where nine of their friends died three years ago.
Meyer was at her home around the corner when the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway went up in flames on June 18, 2007, taking nine men with it. She drives past the site nearly every day and says a silent tribute to the firefighters who gave their lives so that she and her neighbors might be spared.
Meyer was among a few hundred people who gathered at the Savannah Highway site to pay tribute to that sacrifice on the third anniversary of the deadly fire. The crowd was a bit smaller than it was last year, when the site first opened to the public, but the emotion was just as raw, the grief still fresh.
"We need to be here to support them," Meyer said. "Those men lost their lives to save our lives. I just wish I could give to their families what they gave to us."
The memorial once again proved to be a muted but powerful affair. Firefighters and families of the fallen spent an hour paying their respects in private. Then, firefighters lined up in formation as Fire Chief Thomas Carr slowly read the names of the dead: Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton, Mike French, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson.
A lone silver bell tolled for each before the gates opened to the public.
"This just doesn't get any easier," one firefighter said to another as they embraced in a hug.
They joined dozens of others who fanned out across the sprawling property to stand beside the spots where the nine men fell during the rolling inferno at the massive furniture outlet. Plaques for each man hung on pedestals, along with a white candle and an American flag.
Trina Boyd, Champaign's niece, said it meant a great deal to her and her family to see so many people turn out to remember the fallen. Champaign was a Christian man who loved life and helping other people, she said. It is gratifying, she added, to see all the improvements that have been made to the Fire Department as a result of the sacrifices he and the others made. "Our loss has been everyone's gain," she said.
North Charleston Fire Explorers Richard Stanley and Tiffany Badgett hugged one another as they looked out on the scene. Both had been inspired to join the fire service by the men who died; Stanley by Mulkey, and Badgett by French.
"When Michael French was a volunteer at C & B (Fire Department), he used to say he would be the one who would leave with the most respect," Badgett said. "I guess he was right."
Bruce Burding, a retired St. John's fire engineer, knew all nine of the men, but this was the first year he could bring himself to attend a memorial. The memories were just too much. "I just can't get by it," he said, shaking his head.
Charleston Fire Capt. Chris Villarreal understands. He led the first crew into the deadly fire, and the memories flood back every time he sets foot on the site.
"I dread this day every year," he said. "But it's something we have to do. They sacrificed everything, and we have to make sure we keep honoring them and keep their spirit alive."
Ann Mulkey, who lost her son in the blaze, found the memorial beautiful. She comes out to the site regularly. It's where she feels Louis' presence closest at hand, she said.
"This is where he died -- where they all died," she said. "This, to me, is his grave, and this is where we should be."
Reach Glenn Smith at email@example.com or 937-5556.