Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Charleston 9 – A Different Perspective, Part 2

On our way from the staging area to the Coliseum, one person in particular stood out from the crowd of people lining the streets. Once we exited I-526 and turned onto the city streets, I noticed a woman kneeling on the sidewalk. Her right hand was held over her heart and her left hand was held aloft giving the AMESLANI Love You” sign.

This woman was weeping – the tears were literally soaking her face. As each vehicle with the family members of the 9 passed, she bowed so low that her forehead pressed into the sidewalk. As far as I know, she was not a relative of any of the firefighters – she seemed to just be an average Charlestonian overcome by grief who had found a very personal way to show her support for the families of the 9 and for the firefighters of the CFD.

Once we reached the Coliseum, the family vehicles pulled up in the circle and stopped. The sidewalk into the Coliseum was lined with Honor Guard members from all over the U.S. and Canada. It was a hot day and quite humid. Most of the Honor Guard members were standing in the hot sun. It took quite a while for the long procession to pass. During this entire time, the Honor Guard members held a rigid salute. They were taking a serous beating from the heat and humidity, and I saw one of them get so shaky that he almost passed out. Members of the EMS standby crews quickly pulled him out of line, got him into the shade, and began rehydrating him. The other Honor Guard members closed ranks quickly and smoothly. I don’t think any of the families noticed that moment. The rest of the Honor Guard members didn’t twitch, despite the streams of sweat running down their faces and dripping onto the sidewalk.

The EMS standby crews were awesome on that day. I particularly noticed several of the Dorchester County, (SC) EMS crews in action giving out cold bottled water and assisting several people who were overcome by heat.

An arena-style Jumbotron was set up near the entrance to the Honor Guard walk. It showed the interior of the Coliseum and broadcast the sounds of the orchestral music from the interior for those who were unable to go inside.

As each family assembled for the walk into the Coliseum, they were led by a Charleston firefighter. These firefighters carried shiny new replacement helmets for the ones worn by the 9 at the Sofa Super Store fire. It was difficult to avoid thinking about the contrast between the likely condition of those helmets and the new red and black ones carried in the procession.

As we entered the blissful cool and dim Coliseum, it was obvious that the seats were filled nearly to the rafters with firefighters from almost anywhere you can imagine.

The lead escort for each family conducted the family members up front, and the rest of us stood beside the tunnel entrance to the Coliseum floor.
I remember the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band playing. I’m of Scottish descent, so the pipes are doubly meaningful for me at any time, but never more so than during this service. The pipes and drums were shockingly loud after the earlier orchestral music, and I remember thinking “Just like every other firefighter – even our funerals are noisy.”

The service itself was a blur. I vaguely remember music, speeches, music, speeches, and more music.

A video of the June 22 memorial service can be found here.

Chief Thomas elicited some laughter when he told a personal story about each of the 9. It was obvious that their loss had shocked him very deeply. At that moment, I had very ambivalent feelings. On one hand, Chief Thomas was obviously crushed by what had happened. On the other hand, he bore the ultimate responsibility for what happened and it didn’t seem as if he was past the denial stage of what had occurred, despite the presence of the nine flag-draped coffins and the large portrait-type photos of the 9 at the foot of the podium.

I remember seeing several obviously-retired firefighters in their dress uniforms, sitting in wheelchairs on the first level of the stands. Many were from hundreds or thousands of miles away. I remember thinking “WOW. Despite their obvious physical handicaps, these disabled firefighters made a long trip to honor the 9.”

I remember seeing one of the Baltimore City firefighters dissolving into tears and being assisted out of the Coliseum by another Baltimore firefighter. I remember thinking about the two recent LODDs that Baltimore had experienced and wondering if this firefighter was a friend of one of their LODDs. I was also impressed that on this day, no firefighter was alone.

Most of all, I remember the overwhelming silence between the speakers and the musical presentation. I’m used to noise like the Tower of Babel if three or more firefighters are present. To see thousands upon thousands of firefighters in one building and being able to hear a pin drop was impressive. I remember thinking that I had never seen such respect earned or given.

I remember the recessional, with some of the Charleston firefighters so overcome with emotion that they were literally being carried by their brother firefighters.

Our family escort duties were complete, so we exited with the other firefighters. Rank upon rank of firefighters lined the sidewalk where the nine hearses were lined up.

Nine times a flag-draped coffin was loaded into a hearse. Nine times, the FDNY pipes skirled. Nine times we held a silent salute.

We remained until the hearses pulled away, destined for the individual funerals to be held later in the week. We then returned to our vehicles. Traffic wasn’t moving, so we took the time to remove the Kleenex from our vehicles. It took a few minutes.

As we were cleaning out our vehicles, I noticed an adult woman who was very pale and sweaty, and who had a very unsteady gait. She complained of dizziness. One of the other Hilton Head firefighters assisted me in moving her back inside and sitting her in a chair in the cool Coliseum interior. One of the other firefighters found one of the Dorchester County EMS crews. They rapidly responded and took over patient care. I remember thinking “Even at a memorial service, we’re still here taking care of people.” It was a small consolation that we had been able to do a small service to help someone in need even after our family escort duties were complete.

As we were finally able to mount up and leave. Traffic was still heavy and it was difficult to exit onto the street. A New Orleans ladder company saw what was happening. They dismounted their rig, blocked traffic, pulled their rig across the street and made sure that all of the family escorts could leave without a further wait. It was much appreciated.

It was midafternoon, and we were all getting hungry. We agreed to meet at a restaurant we all liked in the St. John’s area south of downtown. When we pulled into the restaurant, we noticed fire apparatus from Georgia and Florida in the parking lot. We greeted the firefighters from those rigs, and had a tasty but unmemorable meal.

After eating, we finished the two-hour drive back to Hilton Head in silence.
I had a lot of competing thoughts running through my head the entire time. In the emotions of the moment was difficult to avoid bitterness at the CFD chiefs who were at the fire, even though I didn't know any of them. I had to tell myself to overcome that emotion and to think rationally about it. I realized that they sincerely thought that the way they did things at the time was what they thought was the best way to do business. I also realized that none of them responded to the Sofa Super Store fire with any idea that they’d lose a single firefighter, let alone the 9. I had to remind myself that their department culture had as much to do with what happened as did any individual decision made at the scene.

In the intervening three years, I’ve had several of our firefighters ask me “Chief, could it happen here?” At first, my instinct was to say “Of course not.”, but then I realized that even though we did things much differently than Charleston did at the time, that there was no way that I could honestly make that kind of promise. I finally was able to answer that we are looking at everything we do to ensure that our firefighters stay safe.

We are not a large department, and we generally have at least two or three staff chiefs respond to every working incident.

Typically, the staff chiefs take the Safety, Division C, and any other assignment that Command needs, but in the past I’d heard a lot of “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” comments from the troops after a fire.

The first time I actually felt that my department had benefitted from the painful lessons from the Sofa Super Store fire was at the first working commercial fire to which I responded a few months after the memorial service. This fire resulted in a quick knock, but a prolonged salvage and overhaul operation – the kind that we all hate. We had a few moments of confusion due to some unusual building features and a few communications problems, and I don’t think any of us was feeling particularly great, despite the nice stop. That changed for me as we were picking up and one of our firefighters approached me. This firefighter had been one of those who had attended the Charleston 9 memorial service. He had not exactly been the biggest fan of the staff chief responses to previous fires. When he approached me, I remember thinking “Great, here it comes.”

To my surprise, he quietly said “I owe you an apology.” I told him that I didn’t know of anything he should apologize for. He replied “I used to complain all the time about too many Chiefs and not enough Indians at our fires. Now, I know why you do it. Thank you for looking out for me at our fires.” I told him that he really didn’t need to apologize, but that I appreciated the apology.

I left the fire scene thinking that finally some good had come from the horrible tragedy that put the term "The Charleston 9" in our vernacular. It’s a shame that this incident ever occured, but I can't change that, so I have accepted it. It would be an even greater shame if that tragedy passed without the rest of us learning everything we can and doing everything within our power to ensure that it NEVER happens again.

In the past three years, I've also been fortunate to meet several Charleston firefighters that I did not previously know. I've met them in some of the South Carolina Fire Academy classes I've taught in my role as an adjunct faculty member, in Charleston firehouses, and socially. They are universally professional, friendly, and when in class, eager to learn. I am honored to be able to call them "brother". I'm also honored that a few of them spent an afternoon in my home, and that we were able to talk about the future and not the past.

Rest in Peace my nine brave brothers. Your sacrifice has indeed not been in vain.