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