The call went out Wednesday morning, every firefighter in Charleston told to gather around their radios so they could hear a message from the chief.

Most guys couldn't remember ever getting news like that. And for the rest of the day, every fire station was quiet, in shock.

They knew it was inevitable, that it had to happen sooner or later, but they hadn't been expecting it so soon.

When he came over the radio, he held the mike button down as he spoke,

every "um" and pause in his message broadcast across the city. The men who know him best could hear the hesitation in his voice.

After 32 years with the Charleston Fire Department, 16 years as chief, and 11 months with the deaths of nine brother firefighters hanging over his head, Rusty Thomas knew he had to quit. It was the only way the department could get past its worst tragedy, the only way to heal open wounds.

That didn't make it any easier.

There are many firefighters sad to see Thomas go. He clearly loves the Fire Department, has devoted his life to it. He has served as his father did, and his grandfather before that. But many others say it was time for him to go.

You don't lose nine men and not have someone answer for it.

Mayor Joe Riley said Thomas' decision had nothing to do with the report due out today, but there's probably not a firefighter in the city who believes that it didn't at least play a role in the timing.

If he had quit today, or next week, or next month, it would be considered a reaction to the report, which is most likely going to say mistakes were made.

Announcing his retirement Wednesday was Rusty Thomas' last chance to go out on his own terms.

As city officials prepared for a press conference to discuss Thomas' retirement, firefighters at the training center practiced getting out of a building when things go bad. Some say it's the best training they've ever had, and it's long overdue. They should have had it years ago — and maybe, just maybe, some of those guys would have survived.

They blame Thomas for that.

They are using new equipment now, better gear for fighting fires, but it's a bittersweet improvement. As one firefighter said, nine guys had to die for us to get this stuff.

They blame Thomas for that.

For years, Charleston firefighters have battled every blaze just like the last one, the same game plan every time — because that's how they always did it. But the old ways aren't good enough anymore. The fire department didn't change enough, if any. Pride and tradition has cost the Charleston Fire Department dearly.

They blame Thomas for that.

But even the men who think Thomas brought this on himself by not ordering more training, by not upgrading equipment, have regrets. They say Thomas would have been a hero if, on that night, he had said "To hell with the furniture, get my men out of there." But hindsight's easy. It doesn't change anything.

Still, even Thomas' fiercest critics could not help but be saddened by the way things have gone down for a fellow firefighter.

Unfortunately, one said, this is his legacy. More than three decades of service will be forever overshadowed by one horrible night.