A few hundred mourners gathered Wednesday evening on a scarred and wounded patch of Savannah Highway to light a candle, say a prayer and remember nine firefighters who lost their lives there one year ago.
Behind a chain-link fence and under a hazy blue sky, a long line of Charleston firefighters fanned out across the uneven earth where they had battled a raging inferno in the Sofa Super Store last June. The land was clear now, save for a lone flagpole and nine white wreaths marking where the nine men died.
The private ceremony, limited to city firefighters and the families of the fallen, began at 7:30 p.m. — about the time the first mayday call had sounded on June 18, 2007.
Firefighters stood at rapt attention as the lonely drone of bagpipes filled the air with "Amazing Grace." The grieving families slowly walked to the spots where their loved ones had been found. They hugged, cried and lingered as the sun went down, as if unwilling to lose whatever connection might remain in the dirt underfoot.
The ceremony capped a day of remembrance in Charleston as the city marked the painful first anniversary of the tragedy. Earlier, some 1,500 people attended an hour-long public memorial at the Gaillard Auditorium to honor the firefighters' sacrifice and celebrate their lives.
The memorial drew mourners from across South Carolina, including Gov. Mark Sanford, though attendance was short of the overflow crowds city officials had anticipated at the 2,700-seat auditorium. A brass ensemble played a melancholy prelude as people filed inside, where oversized portraits of the nine men lined the stage.
Mayor Joe Riley said these men 'rushed into a burning building and entered the pages of history for the city of Charleston.' He said the city will honor them by making the Fire Department a national model. He also urged the community to remember and emulate their contributions as fathers, sons, friends and citizens.
'They were good guys, people you would want as your friends,' Riley said. 'The rest of us will remember them as we strive to be heroes too.'
The ceremony was short on speeches, with the families preferring to tell the story of the fallen through a video montage of images and music that captured the personality of each man:
Capt. Mike Benke beaming at his wedding. Capt. Billy Hutchinson cradling his newborn twin daughters.
Capt. Louis Mulkey smiling with friends, hugging his parents. Engineer Brad Baity looking sharp in his U.S. Marine Corps uniform. Engineer Mark Kelsey straddling his motorcycle and hoisting a beer.
Assistant Engineer Michael French playing with a toy fire truck as a boy. Firefighter Earl Drayton aboard a cruise ship. Firefighter Brandon Thompson laughing at a party. Firefighter Melvin Champaign mugging with one of his children and Chuck E. Cheese.
All nine received posthumous medals of honor from the International Association of Fire Fighters. Members of the Fire Department honor guard cradled the medals as they stood beside the portraits of the fallen.
Capt. Art Wittner, the lone surviving member of the Engine 16 crew sent to the fire, choked back tears as he read the 'Firefighter Prayer.' After a song titled 'Unsung Hero,' Capt. Lance Williams rang a memorial bell signalling the final call to duty.
Major Hollins sat alone in the back of the auditorium, tears streaming down his face, as he watched the somber crowd slowly file into the daylight.
Hollins fought fires in Charleston for 28 years before retiring in 2001. For the memorial he dusted off his faded blue uniform, wrapped a black band around his silver badge and paid tribute to those who died carrying on that tradition. 'It's hard ... just very stressful today,' Hollins said, dabbing his eyes. 'They were real heroes.'
Firefighters gathered outside the auditorium after the ceremony to share hugs, backslaps and favorite stories about the men. Many had approached the day with mixed emotions, wanting to celebrate the memory of their fallen brothers but dreading the emotional trip back to that awful night. In the end, the tribute pleased most.
'They did a good job,' Capt. Jamie Greene said. 'It was a good way for us to unite a year later.'
Reggie Barnes, a 27-year veteran of the Charleston Fire Department, found the ceremony respectful and emotional. He managed to keep his emotions in check until the medals of honor were presented and the final bell rung.
'Then, I just lost it,' he said. 'That's when things really started to hit home. I was crying like a baby.'
Roger Yow, head of the local firefighters union, said the anniversary marked a turning point. The fallen won't be forgotten, but it's time to focus on moving forward, he said. 'We reached an important milestone today. It's time to turn our attention to the future.'
Wayne Mulkey, Louis Mulkey's older brother, agreed. He said his family appreciates the day's events, but he said he believes the greatest tribute is the continued improvement of the Fire Department. 'We need to stop the grieving. We need to focus on fixing the department.'