On anniversary of furniture store blaze
CHARLESTON -- Retired firefighter Major A. Hollins Sr. sat in the dark and cried.
In the year since he lost nine of his brothers in a furniture store fire, he has witnessed a flurry of lawsuits, shouting matches at City Hall and a host of reports attacking his beloved fire department.
But Wednesday, in the shadows of the back row of the Galliard Auditorium, Hollins watched politicians remain quiet and remember his brothers.
"It was less talking and more to the point," Hollins said about the memorial service marking the one year anniversary of their deaths, the greatest loss of firefighters since the 9-11 attacks. "On a day like today, it's beautiful."
Jimmy Gallant, a city councilman who resigned from a safety panel in protest of the fire department's management, opened the service with a prayer for the firefighters, saying, "Perhaps God has made them ... angels."
Gov. Mark Sanford, who last week angered many firefighters by vetoing legislation that would have given tax breaks to businesses and homeowners who installed sprinklers, sat in the back row and didn't speak.
Chief Randy Thomas, who announced his retirement last month after a list of scathing reports attacking his leadership, waited until the ceremony was over before walking quietly by the portraits of the nine firefighters on stage.
Families who have sued the Sofa Superstore provided photos of their loved ones for a slide show.
"We need some days like this," said Reggie Barnes, a Charleston firefighter and state vice president for the International Association of Firefighters, which has been critical of the department. "You can forget your differences for a little while."
Slides bring tears, laughter
Mayor Joseph Riley spoke for about five minutes before the service's main event -- a 30-minute slide show full of pictures of the firefighters and their families. The audience laughed and cried while watching the men hold babies, wear oversized sombreros and ride in teacups at Disney World.
"Those pictures up on that stage, that's a life," said Columbia Fire Department Assistant Chief Harry Tinsley. "That's what it's about today."
Sanford, who vetoed the sprinkler legislation because he thought it created a "taxpayer-funded subsidy," said after the ceremony that people should separate the inevitable second-guessing after a tragedy from the duty of honoring the dead.
Sanford said the ceremony showed the firefighters were "engaged in life."
"You don't live lukewarm and live as a firefighter."
The fire department has taken a beating in the year after the fire, with criticism about everything from inadequate training to outdated equipment to lax procedures.
But firefighters got the day off Wednesday as other departments from all over, including a company from Columbia, filled their posts.
The firefighters, mostly young men with peach-fuzz beards, huddled in groups of two or three in front of the auditorium, smiling and posing for pictures in their crisp, dark blue uniforms.
Ask them to talk about the fire and most of them freeze before politely declining.
"Everybody is a little bit different," said William Perez, an engineer for the department. "This is a new beginning for the Charleston Fire Department. Baby steps."
After the International Association of Firefighters presented the nine firefighters with its medal of honor, Art Witter, a captain with the department, read the "Firefighter Prayer." He started strong and steady. He ended in tears.
"And if, according to your will, I have to lose my life, bless with your protecting hand my children and my wife. Amen."