Charleston’s firefighters did what they were trained to do on June 18, 2007. As smoke and flames filled a West Ashley furniture store, firefighters ran into the building in an effort to attack the fire and save a trapped employee. Not long after they began the fight, it was over, and nine local firemen lost their lives: Billy Hutchinson, Mike Benke, Louis Mulkey, Mark Kelsey, Brad Baity, Michael French, Earl Drayton, Brandon Thompson, and Melven Champaign. These heroes will not be forgotten.

And neither will the memorials Charlestonians, firefighters, and strangers left over the past year at the site of the Sofa Super Store. Firefighters have been collecting the variety of good wishes and appreciations. They’re waiting on the final decision regarding the use of the site before making plans on how the memorials will be recognized.

For now, they’ve been organized in boxes. Firefighter hats signed by families and other fire units stand out. One box has dozens of small American flags. Another is filled with clothes left at the scene, mainly emergency work crew uniforms. One T-shirt reads, “God bless the guys who gave their lives up to save the lives of others.” It was signed “Your brothers and sisters.”

Children have left some of their favorite possessions. There are boxes filled with stuffed animals and a number of toy trucks, including at least one homemade red fire truck with “rescue” hand-written on the side.

There are plastic wreaths and long-dead flowers. Many visitors left posterboards with signed condolences. There’s one from the cast and crew of Army Wives and several from classrooms. Tucked among cards was a “Certificate of Excellence” you’d expect a teacher to give a deserving student. Written to Hutchinson, the certificate reads, “In recognition of his bravery and courage.” —Greg Hambrick


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