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Gift pays cost of uniforms for S.C. firefighters

By Robert Behre
The Post and Courier

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Tuesday morning telephone call left Charleston Mayor Joe Riley speechless, which he later admitted doesn’t happen very often.

But it’s not every day someone offers to donate $228,000 to the city treasury.

That’s what Charleston automobile dealer Gene Reed did, essentially covering the $228,637.15 cost of buying new uniforms for city firefighters that will comply with the National Fire Protection Association’s standards.

The inadequacy of the city’s current uniforms, which are polyester that can melt in high heat, came to light after the June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze in which nine city firefighters perished.

The association’s standards say uniforms should be made from only natural fibers.

Reed later appeared at the City Council’s evening meeting to shake council members’ hands and present them with the check.

“It’s something I want to do,” he said, pausing a few times to keep his emotions in check. “I’ve been successful, and I want to share what I have with the community.”

Reed was in a Manhattan marina just 800 feet from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He said he was deeply touched by Charleston’s loss, the greatest loss of firefighters since the 9/11 attacks.

He also voiced support for Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, whose resignation has been urged by at least one council member after a critical report of the city’s response to the blaze.

“Chief Thomas, I think you do a great job, and I think you’ve been unduly criticized by the media,” Reed said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Reed said he also gets criticized by the media, “and I don’t think that’s right, either.”

His donation comes less than four weeks after he was arrested and charged with the use of a vehicle without permission, a misdemeanor.

Police said Reed took someone else’s BMW convertible for a lengthy spin outside a Mount Pleasant restaurant and that they later found Reed and the car outside his Meeting Street home. Reed’s donation to the city appears unprecedented for its spontaneity, if not its size.

“It speaks to Mr. Reed’s extraordinary generosity,” Riley said, “and to the heartfelt support for our fire department and, I believe, for Chief Thomas as well.”

Since last week, when Councilman Henry Fishburne called for Thomas and Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin to step down so the department can move forward, Riley said only one person has called to echo that sentiment. He said most everyone who has talked to him has expressed support for the chief.

Mary Forbes of James Island appeared at Tuesday’s meeting to do the same. “I think he’s been a great chief,” she said. “He’s been there for many years ... and I think he should stay there for many more years.”

Riley said when Reed told him of his planned donation during a late morning telephone call, “I was speechless for a while. Mr. Reed thought I dropped the telephone.”

Reed told council members of his experience watching occupants of the World Trade Center towers jumping to their deaths, as well as his assisting firefighters from their boat onto the dock.

“I was very deeply touched by the loss of our department,” Reed said. “What’s one life compared to $228,000?”

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