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Archive for Saturday, June 23, 2007

Firefighters gather to honor 9 who died

June 23, 2007

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Caskets are arranged in a row during a memorial service in North Charleston, S.C., on Friday for the nine firefighters killed in a blaze in Charleston on Monday.

Caskets are arranged in a row during a memorial service in North Charleston, S.C., on Friday for the nine firefighters killed in a blaze in Charleston on Monday.

— Fire Capt. Ken Dammand stood sharply in his dress uniform, his eyes reddening, as the families of nine dead firefighters filed past him and into a packed coliseum for their memorial service Friday.

"These people are dealing with a mountain of grief," said Dammand, who worked his shift in Everett, Wash., and went 40 hours without sleep to make it to South Carolina for the ceremony. "If we can take on some of that, that's why we're here."

Dammand and a colleague from his city north of Seattle were among thousands of firefighters who traveled from across the country to mourn the Charleston firefighters killed in a furniture store blaze Monday night. It was the worst single loss of U.S. firefighters' lives since the Sept. 11 attacks.

They traveled to a region that normally draws out-of-towners to its beaches and historical landmarks, but where city offices were closed Friday as piles of flowers and cards and remembrances of the slain men have grown over the past four days.

Some came in fire trucks that took part in a procession that wound its way past hundreds of onlookers, past the rubble of the Sofa Super Store and past the dead men's fire houses before arriving at the coliseum.

Dammand and Everett firefighter Tim Hogan came by plane, working a 24-hour shift back home before leaving, and waiting out a six-hour layover in Atlanta before getting to Charleston on Thursday.

They stood shoulder to shoulder with comrades from Virginia Beach, Va., Saginaw, Texas, and Peoria, Ill. It was a trip they said they felt compelled to make to share the painful collective grief.

"It makes it a little hard, every one we do," Hogan said. "But the families deserve this. The fallen are fallen, they're looking down on us smiling right now. Their families ... we're here for them."

The Washington firefighters didn't care that they couldn't get in to the coliseum. It was filled to its 9,000-seat capacity, so they joined several hundred others who watched the service on screens in a nearby convention center and outside the arena.

Inside, a row of nine caskets sat before a row of nine large photos of the fallen firefighters: Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford "Brad" Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; James "Earl" Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melvin Champaign, 46.

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