Monday, June 21, 2010

The Charleston 9 – A Different Perspective, Part 1

The evening of June 18, 2007 will be forever burned into my memory, but the day of June 22, 2007 was the date that really made this tragedy personal for me. To set the stage, on the evening of June 18, I was at home after a pretty good day at work. Training had gone well, the weather was pleasant, and I had just finished a nice dinner with my family. I decided to watch some TV, and started the typical flipping through the channels. I usually don’t watch regular broadcast TV, but happened to flip through Charleston’s Channel 5, WCSC.

I vaguely caught images of a large building on fire, but had my finger firmly on the channel advance button. I quickly flipped back, just in time to see the first images of the huge amount of hot, black, turbulent smoke boiling out of the storefront, and worse, several hoselines that had been advanced through the front door. I remember thinking “Oh, no, that’s bad news for the firefighters.” I then saw that the store was the Sofa Super Store. I often visit Charleston by way of this area, so I knew that this was a very large fire in a very large structure.

The images were horrifying. The apparent absence of organized incident command, the obvious high heat discoloration on the truss void-level siding, the questionable decision to vent the front windows, a couple of firefighters bailing out the front…then the horrors of the flashover and the collapse…with the hoselines - sadly - still laid through the front door.

I couldn’t tear myself away. I knew that the chances of no firefighter deaths in that scenario were nil, but there was no information other than the announcement that Charleston FD had “some firefighters missing” and that one civilian had been rescued. Shortly after this, it was announced that CFD had “six or seven” firefighters missing in the fire, the enormity of what I was watching sank in.

I immediately called our on-duty Battalion Chief, Cliff Steedley and asked if he was watching TV. He said that he wasn’t. I told him to turn on WCSC “right now”. He caught the unusual tone in my voice and turned on the TV. He said something like – that looks like a bad fire. I told him that Charleston had six or seven firefighters missing – that they really were not sure and I’ll never forget the shock and disbelief in his voice when he said “How many?”

I repeated myself, then suggested that we notify our senior staff. I also told Chief Steedley that this might generate USAR team response, and that we needed to notify then-Captain Mick Mayers of the incident. We agreed that he would notify our Fire Chief and that I would notify the Deputy Chief of Operations. We started the phone notifications. Many sleepless hours later, we were notified that Charleston was not going to request our assistance and to stand down.

Needless to say, I can’t remember much from the next couple of days other than to wonder who had died. When the names were announced, I was stunned to find that I knew two of them. Many of our members knew others of the 9, and we went about our duties largely in shocked silence.

On the 21st, I was asked to work with another of our Captains, Randy Lindstrom, to organize our department’s trip to the memorial service. Randy and I agreed that I would coordinate the family escort unit and that Randy would coordinate the members who would ride in the procession. If you’ve never done this, suffice it to say that there are a million details, and that it’s not easy even when everyone is not stressed out. The preparation included some retired FDNY members who reside on Hilton Head Island, and who wanted to ride with us. We were honored to have seats for the FDNY members to attend with us, as we sent our Rehab 1, a bus that can be reconfigured from a rehab unit to a crew transporter.

On the evening of June 21, four of us went to Charleston to spend the night, as family escort duty started early the next morning. The members of our group were Fire Chief Tom Fieldstead, Captain Chad McRorie of Engine 2, Senior Fire Inspector Sam Burnette, and me. We had a quiet dinner and went to bed early. The next morning, we got up very early, ate a quick breakfast, dressed in our Class A uniforms, and went to the staging area. The staging area was in a store parking lot just up the street from the fire location. There, we met with members of several other SC fire departments who had volunteered as family escorts. We met the group leader to which we were assigned, Columbia Fire Marshal Carmen Floyd, and the sixth member of our group, Colleton County Fire Chief Barry McRoy. We were also assigned a detective from the Charleston Police Department as a guide and city liaison.

After a cup of coffee, the family escort groups left. Several had quite a distance to travel, so they left early. Our group was assigned to a family that lived literally a few blocks from both the staging area and the fire scene. We convoyed to their home, met the family, and then stood quietly outside while the widow and children completed their final preparations. Several members of the deceased firefighter’s family were firefighters from North Carolina. They were very quiet and seemed as if they were uncertain about the days plans. Our group engaged them, described the day’s schedule to them, and generally asked if there was anything we could do for them. One of them asked if we could locate mourning bands for their badges, as they did not have any. Capt. McRorie and I both had several, so we were able to do this small thing for our brothers from NC.

We then met the family members that would ride in our vehicles. I was assigned the deceased firefighter’s sister and her three children, a boy and two girls. The boy rode up front with me and his mother and sisters rode in the back seat of my department SUV.

When the time came to go to the staging area at the Citadel Mall, we took a convoluted route through several side streets and neighborhoods, rather than the direct route, as we did not want to go past the fire scene. Once at the staging area, we waited until the apparatus procession from downtown arrived, then made preparations to go to the Coliseum for the memorial service. I unfortunately have attended the LODD funerals for several friends over the years, but this procession was incredible. As we entered Interstate 526, the Charleston PD had completely isolated the eastbound lanes for the procession. Several things about the trip stand out in my mind.

The billboards with Charleston 9 memorials were literally everywhere. I’ve never seen an outpouring of support for public safety in the way the citizens and businesses of Charleston did that week.

Traffic was initially moving westbound on I-526. That ended very quickly. Three truckers angled their rigs across the interstate, completely blocked traffic, and stood on the edge of the median with their hands over their hearts. Hundreds of motorists followed the truckers’ example. Virtually everyone parked in the westbound lanes exited their vehicles, placed their hands over their hearts, and stood quietly while the huge procession filed past.

One of the overpasses was staffed with an engine company that displayed a huge U.S. flag from the guardrail. They wore their work uniforms and helmets, flanked their rig, and saluted. The bridge was blocked with parked vehicles whose occupants also stood, waved flags, or stood quietly with their hands over their hearts.
When we exited the Interstate to approach the Coliseum, the sidewalks were lined with people. Many of them – men and women – were openly weeping.

The only comfort that I could give the family was to remind them that what we were watching was an entire city pouring out their love and respect for their fallen firefighter and his comrades. I was glad that we had the foresight to put several large boxes of Kleenex in our vehicles for the family members. When we arrived at the Coliseum and escorted the family inside, not a single unused Kleenex remained in the boxes. Some of the used ones were stuffed in my driver’s door pocket. I’ve driven apparatus in thick fog, heavy rain, ice and snow, and high winds, but despite the beautiful weather, this was the toughest drive I’ve ever made in an emergency vehicle.

Part 2 will describe my memories of the June 22 Memorial Service.