Firefighters from across U.S., Canada attend memorial

A fire bell tolls as caskets of the nine firefighters killed Monday in Charleston rest in front of the stage during Friday's memorial service in North Charleston.
A fire bell tolls as caskets of the nine firefighters killed Monday in Charleston rest in front of the stage during Friday's memorial service in North Charleston.

NORTH CHARLESTON -- The memorial service began the night before as red, white, blue and black cars, trucks and SUVs left fire and police departments, driving east or north or south to Charleston.

Amarillo, Tampa, Orlando, Savannah, Cincinnati, Burlington, Las Vegas, Washington, New York City: The men and women of nearly 800 fire and police departments from the United States and Canada came to South Carolina, intent on honoring Charleston's nine fallen firefighters at Friday's memorial service.

The nine died Monday: Capt. Theodore Michael Benke, 49; Capt. William Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; engineer Rodney B. Baity, 37; engineer Mark Kelsey, 40; assistant engineer Michael French, 27; firefighter Melvin Champaign, 46; firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, 56; and firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27. They were fighting a fire at the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway.

The men and women honoring them reached the North Charleston Coliseum, independently or in a 250-truck procession from downtown, on a hot, blue-sky morning.

Those serving in the honor guard dressed in black uniforms with patent-leather belts, braid and station patches on the shoulders, their high-crowned bell caps offering a little shade lined the right side of the coliseum's plaza. The families would walk between them, into the service, then the hundreds of uniformed men and women would follow.

Retired firefighter John Caracciolo arrived at 8:30 a.m. from his home on Seabrook Island, wearing his fire rescue T-shirt. His own firefighter father died in the line of duty in 1956. Caracciolo was 13, and he cried, remembering his broken heart, knowing exactly how the Charleston families feel. Even so, he went on to become a New York City firefighter, too.

Past the honor guard, hidden by the curve of a coliseum ramp, bagpipers practiced "America the Beautiful" and "Amazing Grace."

"Anytime you see off a police officer or firefighter, you'll see a piper. It's one of our ways to say goodbye," said Rick Brown, a piper from West Tampa's honor guard.

"Especially with fire service and law enforcement, they feel they have to be strong," Brown said. "The pipes can give a reason to escape that, to feel release."

Aneshia Seabrook and her mother, Carol Fokes, came early, too. Seabrook, of North Charleston, is a firefighter's wife. As sons Kevin and Justin, in their pressed shirts and ties, listened, she said, "I just feel like it could have been my husband. He went to help. He actually brought the bodies of the firefighters out.

"We're all part of the same family. We all are grieving."

After the procession's engines and platform trucks and ladder trucks and heavy rescue trucks had parked, the families arrived. Just before the honor guard came to attention, one of its members, Andrew Waters of York County, Va., explained: "It's a very small thing, a seven-hour trip. It's a sad tale, but it's part of what we do, not the glorious part."

The mothers and fathers, wives and children, brothers and sisters of the fallen men wore red carnations. They walked behind the flags of the Charleston Fire Department Honor Guard and the pipers and drummers of the New York City Fire Department, down an aisle bordered by firefighters, close to 1,000 of them.

Still more took the seats on every tier of the coliseum, 10,000 or more, everywhere the black of dress uniforms and of mourning.

More than 400 family members filed in, each family group preceded by a firefighter who carried a traditional fire helmet, in red or black. After the family members were seated, after the national anthem and an invocation, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley spoke.

The nine firefighters did "what every firefighter is prepared to do every day," which is risk their lives. he said. "It was their calling; it was their training."

Riley made a promise the speakers after him echoed, that these men would not be forgotten. "As they entered that building, they walked into the pages of the history of our community. We will find a way to honor them. They will never be forgotten."

S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford reminded listeners the loss of nine firefighters was the largest in the nation's firefighting community since Sept. 11, 2001. He reminded listeners that in Charleston now there are empty lockers at fire stations, coaches missing at sports games, fathers missing at dinnertime.

He asked what meaning could be brought to such a cataclysm and suggested everyone make three promises: to live life fully, to serve others and to commit, as do firefighters, to acting upon the values of love, courage and sacrifice.

Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas worried aloud in his speech that he would cry, but brought the mourners laughter. He told tales about each of the nine men.

Thomas said he looked for his T-shirt from 9/11 assistance, a shirt that says, "All gave some, and some gave all." He added, "And these guys didn't give some; they gave all. .f.f. They gave all to our community every single day."

Just before the final reading of the nine names, just before the traditional ringing of a fire bell, Monsignor Joseph Roth, chaplain of the S.C. State Firefighters Association, spoke.

"Some call them heroes," he said. "I call them saints."

Reach Brinson at (803) 771-8683.