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Wives of Charleston firefighters band together after tragedy

The Charleston Fire Department Wives Club is a network of firefighter spouses that support one another in good times and bad

By Glenn Smith
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Sisters Angie Baldwin and Suzette Dunlap are thankful they had each other to lean on in the aftermath of the deadly Sofa Super Store fire.

Both are married to Charleston firefighters. They understood all too well the grief, worry and pain each was experiencing in the wake of the June 18 blaze that killed nine firemen.

But not everyone had that kind of support.

In the crowds at the memorial service and funerals for the fallen, some wives of firefighters sat alone, grieving among people they didn’t know. Some people wanted to offer support to the widows but had never met them before and weren’t sure what to do.

“We decided that should never happen again,” said Dunlap, whose husband is a captain at Engine 19 in West Ashley.

She and her sister decided to reach out, to begin building a network of firefighter spouses to support one another in good times and bad. This is how the Charleston Fire Department Wives Club was born.

The group had its first meeting in September and has since grown to about 25 members, including two widows who lost their husbands in the sofa store blaze.

They meet monthly at the Salvation Army building on S.C. Highway 61. Sometimes they talk about the fire; other times they do not. They’ve taken in ball games, hosted guest speakers and even held a self-defense class.

The main goal is to build fellowship, said Baldwin, who serves as the group’s president.

“It’s more than just a wives group,” Dunlap said. “A lot of us have built strong friendships out of this.”

The group hopes to grow even more as word spreads of its existence. With some 250 firefighters in the department assigned to stations all over the city, there are still many families who don’t know one another. That’s to be expected in an organization of that size.

“We basically knew pockets of people before, people my husband worked with at his station and on his shift, and it was the same for my sister,” said Baldwin, whose husband is an engineer at Engine 7 on James Island. “We really wanted to start something so the wives would know each other and could be there for each other should something happen.”

Mark Ruppel, public information officer for the fire department, said the department encourages and supports the wives’ effort. “Anything we can do to be of assistance, we are happy to help.”

The group’s first major event is a memorial picnic for Charleston firefighters and their families June 22 in Brittlebank Park. The picnic will come four days after the first anniversary of the tragedy, a difficult, emotionally charged milestone that will be formally marked by a memorial event now being planned by the city.

“Given the level of bereavement those guys will be going through, we wanted to lighten the load on them and give them a chance to take a day and relax, have fun with the kids,” said club member Kristen Randall, whose husband is a firefighter at Engine 3 downtown.

Copyright 2008, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)

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