Today, there’s no sign left of the raging inferno. Just a peaceful, simple field alongside a busy commercial corridor in West Ashley dotted with American flags and modest memorials. It’s a quiet green oasis wedged into the bustle of Savannah Highway.
And that’s a fitting reminder to take a moment out of our days today and remember nine heroes — Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton, Mike French, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson — who died 11 years ago fighting a towering blaze at what was then a Sofa Super Store.
At the time, it was the deadliest single disaster for firefighters since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York. It was the first loss of life on duty for the Charleston Fire Department since 1965. It was a tragedy that shocked the city and left the community searching for answers.
Firefighters got the call just after 7 p.m. that night. A trash fire on a loading dock had started sending black plumes of smoke into the air behind the Sofa Super Store. The fire spread through the roof, where it was barely visible but quickly building to a deadly intensity.
There were 16 firefighters inside the store when thick smoke filled the showroom, making it all but impossible to find the way back out. A portion of the building’s façade collapsed. The flames grew higher.
At 7:45 p.m. the roof fell in. Nine men never came back out.
Fortunately, we live in a safer world today. And we owe that to the men who died fighting that fire.
While friends, family and coworkers were still grieving, Charleston spent more than
$8 million improving the fire department and training firefighters in the latest techniques. It was a grueling process, but a necessary modernization.
About 100 firefighters have been added to the city staff. A mutual aid agreement between North Charleston, James Island and the St. Johns and St. Andrews public service districts is in place. The department’s operating budget has been roughly doubled.
Hose lines have been upgraded. More engines are dispatched to structure fires. Firefighters have more specialized training. Code enforcement is more efficient. Staff training hours have more than doubled.
It’s an astonishing amount of improvement in just over a decade. But Charleston residents should expect nothing less. Our community responds to tragedy by moving forward, not looking backward. We demand progress.
Today we remember nine lives. We honor their sacrifice. And we celebrate that thousands of Charleston residents live safer lives because of the heroism the city’s firefighters displayed 11 years ago today.