Five years ago, nine Charleston firefighters died in a blaze at a West Ashley furniture store. On Monday evening, in a brief and solemn memorial service at the site of the fire, their names were read aloud, each one followed by the ringing of a bell. No one made any speeches, and there were many moments of near-perfect silence, but for the whoosh of traffic on Savannah Highway.
Much of the audience sat in folding chairs facing the setting sun, squinting at the partially silhouetted figures of firemen who stood at attention in the memorial park where the Sofa Super Store once stood. Interim Fire Chief William Finley Jr. read the list of names aloud: Capt. Mike Benke, Capt. Billy Hutchinson, Capt. Louis Mulkey, Engineer Brad Baity, Engineer Mark Kelsey, Assistant Engineer Michael French, Firefighter Melvin Champaign, Firefighter Earl Drayton, and Firefighter Brandon Thompson.
Firefighter James Smith, of the Contentnea (N.C.) Volunteer Fire Department, sang “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “Angels Among Us,” and the Charleston Fire Department’s Engineer Robert Barrineau closed the ceremony with a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Afterward, the firefighters broke formation, and friends and family walked out to gather around the nine memorial plaques.
The Rev. Hercules Champaign stood with family members beside his nephew Melvin Champaign’s plaque. “You can’t give them enough recognition,” Champaign said of the firefighters. “They gave their all, so we can at least give something.”
Both before and after the ceremony, Gerald Mishoe was in near-constant motion, darting across the grass to offer hugs and handshakes to families and firefighters. A former firefighter with the St. Andrews and North Charleston fire departments, he came out of retirement after the 2007 Sofa Super Store fire to help run the Charleston Firefighter Support Team, which offers free counseling to firefighters and their families.
“It’s been five short years or long years, depending on how you look at it, but they’re very resilient,” Mishoe said of the families. “They’re doing well.”