S.C. FDs step up as Irmo mourns fallen firefighter
"We haven’t had to ask for help. They’ve just provided it," Irmo Assistant Chief Sloane Valentino said
By Ted Clifford
IRMO, S.C. — On Saturday morning, an unseasonably cold rain fell across the Midlands, and poured down on the small memorial that had begun to grow at the base of the flag pole in front of the Irmo Fire Headquarters. Above, the wet flag hung at half-staff to honor the loss of James Michael Muller, the 25-year-old firefighter who died extinguishing a blaze at a Columbia apartment complex Friday night.
On Saturday, Irmo firefighters are not answering calls for service, as they wrestle with the shock and grief from the death of one of their own — a young father and husband who had been involved in firefighting since high school.
“We’re so used to being the heroes and being the guys that provide for others’ needs, but when this happens we’re the guys with needs,” Assistant Chief Sloane Valentino of the Irmo Fire District told The State.
“We’re not capable of answering calls for services. That would be irresponsible to our mental health and irresponsible to the public. We will get back to being on duty, we will get back to serving the public, but right now we need to care for ourselves and our families.”
But fire services will continue to be available, 24 hours a day, to anyone who needs them. Crews from around the region and the state will step up to fill the brief gap, Valentino said.
“The fire service is a very tight-knit community,” Valentino said. “We haven’t had to ask for help. They’ve just provided it.”
On Saturday, crews from Lexington and Cayce will be answering calls for service in the Irmo area, with other crews from around the state filling in on 24-hour shifts until the Irmo crews return to service next week. A state team that assists local departments following firefighter deaths has also been assisting since the death was first reported, Valentino said.
Muller was one of several firefighters caught inside the Tropical Ridge apartment building fire when the structure collapsed Friday night. Two other members of the Irmo Fire District were transported to the hospital after the blaze. They have since been released.
On its Facebook page, the district has thanked the community for its outpouring of support. Valentino said that members of the community had already been by to add to the memorial in front of Irmo Fire Headquarters on Saint Andrews Road.
Valentino has asked members of the community who wish to make a donation to contribute through the Irmo Fire Foundation.
“Any funds generated go straight to the family and whatever their needs are,” Valentino said. The fire department and family are not currently soliciting any donations through Gofundme or any other platform, according to the fire district.
At this time, Muller’s family is asking for privacy while they process the tragedy, Valentino said, and arrangements for a memorial and funeral will be made in the coming days.
Muller had been a firefighter for seven years, since he transferred high schools to Lexington Technology Center so that he could enroll in a fire fighting course. Muller petitioned to complete the two-year course in one year, and in 2016 he was named the center’s student of the year.
“You have to re-dedicate yourself every single day,” Muller said in a video that has been shared widely since his death. “When you raise your right hand ... it’s an oath, it’s a commitment, it’s a living.”