Remembering the Charleston Nine: 13 Years Later…Still Never Forgotten; Forever in our hearts

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By Mark A. Leon

Today, June 18, marks the ninth (12th) anniversary of death of nine courageous firefighters who lost their lives in a devastating furniture store fire.  So often a community is defined by its food, architecture, activities and geography.

For Charleston, SC, its people truly define its legacy and its ability to survive and grow.

Charleston was the setting of the first shots of the American Civil War and a city so rich in early colonial history that we cannot turn a street corner without seeing a cobblestone road, a home where General George Washington slept, the first opera house in the US, a site of slave auctioning and plantations that helped the US economy flourish.

Yet, twelve years ago, on June 18, 2007, nine firefighters sacrificed their lives immortalizing themselves in Charleston’s rich history.  They were gentleman, fisherman, church-going family men, military vets, artists and friends.  One of those brave men often said he would retire from the fire department and replace legendary Summerville high school coach John McKissick.

Today, these brave men continue to rest in our hearts.  As citizens and community members who rest at night knowing hundreds like them protect us from the dangers around, we reflect and remember the unselfish acts of courage of Brad, Mike, Melvin, James, Michael, William, Mark, Louis and Brandon.

To all of you, we honor.

For those that did not know them, here is a little bit about them that will give a little warmth during this somber time:

Bradford “Brad” Baity — Engineer 19
Baity is remembered as a soft-spoken man with a dry sense of humor. An engineer at Station 16, he was quick to help others, friends and strangers. Baity had been with the department for nine years before the fire. His buddies say he was intelligent — very good with computers. In addition to being a firefighter, the 37-year-old also worked as a stagehand at playhouses in the area, including the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. He left behind a wife, daughter and son.

Mike Benke — Captain 16
Captain Mike Benke, age 49, was a 29-year veteran of the fire service. He was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and liked to take his son fishing. He was a local soccer coach, and his nickname around the firehouse was “Cappy.” Like many firefighters, Benke had a second job. He did inventory for Sears. Benke was a Charleston native, and his friends say he never got mad about anything. He is also described by those who were close to him as a dedicated family man, devoted husband and father.

Melvin Champaign — Firefighter 16
Melvin Champaign was a 46-year-old Army veteran and aspiring pastor. The Tae Kwan Do black belt was still fairly new to the Charleston Fire Department. He was a native of James Island and spent time working on the West Coast before returning to the Charleston area. He was known for his smile and his fashion sense. Coworkers say they will never forget his showing up for training wearing a leather hat with a feather in it. Champaign left behind a teenage daughter and two younger boys in Washington state.

James “Earl” Drayton — Firefighter 19
The 32-year veteran of the Charleston Fire Department was the oldest of the nine firefighters killed in the Sofa Super Store Fire. Drayton was known by generations of firefighters, and many at Station 19 in West Ashley and around the community called the 56-year-old “Old School.” He had a reputation of being well-dressed and meticulously washing his black Chrysler. He retired three times from the CFD, each time, his wife says, they asked him to come back.

Michael French — Engineer 5
French was a 27-year-old engineer with the Charleston Fire Department. At the time of the Sofa Super Store fire, he had been with the department for 1.5 years. An Eadyville native, he began his firefighting career as a volunteer with the Pine Ridge Rural Fire Department outside Summerville. Before coming to the CFD, he worked with the St. Andrews Fire Department. French’s friends say he enjoyed boating and talked a lot about his 5-year-old daughter.

William “Billy” Hutchinson, III — Captain 19
Billy Hutchinson was a captain with 30 years of service. He is described as a man of good nature and sports enthusiast who at age 48 still loved to play golf and shoot hoops. He was known for being a great firefighter, but he was also known as the go-to guy for a haircut. At $2 a pop, he would cut the hair of fellow firefighters — a skill he carried over from his second job at Williams Barber Shop in Goose Creek. Hutchinson was married and had three children.

Mark Kelsey — Captain 5
Kelsey was an engineer with 12.5 years of service. Described as a gruff Navy veteran who “told it like it is.” His coworkers say he had a loud voice and describe it as the hardest thing in the Ashley River Fire Department station. The 40-year-old was known for taking rookies under his wing. A native of Indiana, he came to Charleston with the Navy and never left. Kelsey had a custom motorcycle that he rode rain or shine and left behind a teenage son.

Louis Mulkey — Captain 15
Louis Mulkey lived and breathed Green Wave sports. Local firefighters often openly joked Mulkey would one day quit fighting fires and succeed legendary coach John McKissick. Mulkey was a coach for the school’s JV football team and was known for his competitiveness. Family members of the 34-year-old describe him as brave. Mulkey worked as a firefighter for 11.5 years, and according to his family, it was his love. Mulkey left behind a wife.

Brandon Thompson — Firefighter 5
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Thompson was a 4-year veteran of the Charleston Fire Department with 11 years of fire service experience. Those close to him say he was always looking for a grant to purchase a thermal imaging camera for the Pine Ridge Rural Fire Department, where he volunteered for 11 years and was captain. At the time of his death, the 27-year-old was planning to be married. The ceremony was to take place on October 7th on Folly Beach.

*Biographies provided by ABC News 4

Goose Creek loses a 9/11 Hero

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By Mark A. Leon

Not many may know the name Steve “Skip” Skipton Sr. in passing conversation.? On August 23, less than three months after his diagnosis, Skip passed away from complications due to lung cancer.? Leaving behind a caring wife and four beautiful children,? Skip left a legacy that stretches from his colleagues on the Goose Creek Fire Department to his friends and partners for UMDNJ in Camden City and Newark, New Jersey.? As a 9/11 EMS First Responder, Skip was one of the many brave heroes that worked tirelessly in the chaos and mayhem to selflessly take on acts of courage that are still honored today.? His unyielding commitment to family, patriotism, honor and preservation of life were ones he carried with him until his dying day.

To touch a life is a rare gift, but to touch the lives of some many is a legacy that his wife Jen, his children and all his friends and family will carry in their hearts for the rest of their lives.

As a Goose Creek Firefighter, Skip continued to give of himself with the same level of dedication to the force and the community.? He greeted you with a smile and always looked out for the safety and health of others.

“Steve was a person who always gave of himself and never expected anything in return.? If he had it and you didn’t, he would share or give what he had.? He was a devoted father, brother and son.? He will be sorely missed by everyone he tooted.? He had a knack for bringing out the best in people.? He was always good for advice, a joke or a simple laugh.” said friend Captain Warren Adair

Heroism, often times happens without the time to think or comprehend.? It is a momentary act followed by extraordinary action.? If you met Skip, you would find a soft and kind man, but if you listened to his stories, you would see a man brimming with courage.

In honor of Skip and in an effort to help his family cope with the medical expenses, a group of those that were touched by his life are hosting a charity golf tournament on October 27 at Crowfield Golf Club.

They are seeking sponsors and players to rally around the community for support.? From New York to Charleston, Steve “Skip” Skipton was a model for the community and firefighters/EMT around the nation.

Let’s show our true Charleston spirit and compassion and help support this cause in any way.

If you would like to support the event or the family please contact:

Troy Sanders – Crowfield Golf Club – 843.764.4618 / tsanders@cityofgoosecreek.com

Captain Warren Adair, GCCFD – 843.798.9568 / swing4steve@aol.com

Alan Sammis, Past Captain WTFD (NJ) – 856.207.6676 / swing4steve@aol.com

For More Information on Participation please click to open pdf

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