Firefighters watch the televised memorial from Charleston station

In honor of those who died

CHARLESTON -- Lt. Chris Zailski of Old Fort Fire and Rescue slumped on a couch in a Charleston fire house, watching the televised memorial service for nine fallen firefighters.

Five days earlier, six of those firemen had sat on the couch where Zailski now sat. They had paced the same garage, waiting for fire alarms.

"You walk in and it's like a ghost is in here," Zailski said.

Zailski and three others from Old Fort in Dorchester County filled in Friday at Charleston Fire Station No. 16 and No. 19, named for the fire engines housed there.

It was the fire house for six of the dead, and signs of them were everywhere. The log book at the front desk had a notation that six of the seven men on duty Monday had not returned to duty after a fire call on Savannah Highway.

Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, Capt. Mike Benke, Engineer Bradford "Brad" Baity, Assistant Engineer Michael French, Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton and Firefighter Melven Champaign died in the fire.

Engineer Art Wittmer was the lone survivor.

Cards and children's drawings for the firemen were scattered on tables. Cakes, cookies and brownies filled the kitchen. A fireman's jacket hung from the flagpole, surrounded by flowers.

"It's like you don't deserve to be here," Zailski said.

Crews like the one from Old Fort manned fire stations throughout Charleston on Friday so the city's firefighters could attend the memorial service at the North Charleston Coliseum. Most came from Lowcountry departments because they were most familiar with Charleston, said Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson, in Charleston to assist.

Capt. Paul Henthorne of Old Fort had planned to attend the ceremony but his chief asked him to take a crew to fill in.

"It's a privilege," Henthorne said.

Henthorne and Zailski are full-time firemen. The other two in their crew Darin Bagley and Chris Gordon are volunteers at Old Fort. They took time off from their regular jobs to stand in.

The Old Fort firemen brought their Engine No. 16 in honor of the men who died; Charleston's engines were driven to the memorial.

"We thought it was appropriate being that was the engine number they lost people off of," Henthorne said.

Henthorne's crew came on duty at 5 a.m. Friday and stayed until the Charleston firefighters returned to duty after Hutchinson's funeral, which also was held Friday. Hutchinson commanded Engine No. 19.

The crew answered a false alarm at 7:29 a.m. Someone mistook dew steaming on a roof under the hot morning sun for a fire, Henthorne said.

No calls came as they watched the memorial, but a dispatcher's voice often crackled over the intercom system. It drowned out the speakers and singers on TV.

Otherwise, the station was silent.

Occasionally, one of the four would walk outside; the ceremony was too painful to watch.

The Old Fort firefighters didn't hang out with those who worked at Station No. 16 and No. 19, but they knew who they were. Their departments are just 20 minutes apart. They sometimes worked together at fires and car accidents near the county line.

"Every firefighter who perishes anywhere, they're family," Gordon said.

Shortly after the memorial, visitors began showing up at the fire house, bringing gifts and condolences. When Henthorne ordered Papa John's pizza for lunch, the restaurant refused payment.

All who stopped thanked the Old Fort firemen. The Old Fort crew said they were doing what any firefighter would do.

As another well-wisher left, Henthorne looked at his men and said, "It's going to be an emotional day."

Bagley replied, "It is."