'Charleston 9' mourned 5 years later

Fire Capt. Chris Villarreal: 'We never thought we would lose anyone, let alone 9 people'

The Post & Courier

CHARLESTON, S.C. — When the nine city of Charleston firefighters who died in the Sofa Super Store fire are honored tonight, a new leather fire helmet bearing their names will be carried into the ceremony.

Beyond that, some of the department's members say it is hard to believe five years have passed since the fatal Savannah Highway disaster shook the department.

"We never thought we would lose anyone, let alone nine people," said Chris Villarreal, captain of Charleston Fire Station 9 off upper King Street.

"There has been a lot of emotion flowing around these last few weeks," he added.

The Charleston "Nine" Memorial begins at 7 p.m. at the city park where the furniture store once stood. The ceremony will include a procession, a bagpiper and the reading of the nine names and the ringing of a bell. The public is invited to attend.

The nine died on June 18, 2007, while battling a trash fire that raced inside the massive furniture outlet and exploded into a rolling inferno. Killed were firefighters Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton, Michael French, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson.

The blaze was the nation's deadliest firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001. It is thought to have been started by a discarded cigarette in the loading dock area.

City firefigher Justin Perkey has been with the Charleston department only a couple of years, joining after the fatal blaze. But he plans to be at the memorial tonight.

"I think they made that place beautiful for what it is," he said.

The memorial leather helmet being added to the ceremony was given to the department by Phenix Technologies, a national maker of professional fire gear.

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