A few minutes after 7 p.m. on June 18, firefighters responded to a call at the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway. What started as limited smoke in the back of the building quickly filled the West Ashley skyline. While firefighters battled the blaze, passersby at the scene slowly watched the building succumb to flames. As more fire crews showed up, the situation inside the building only worsened.
"You could see inside and see the lamp shades and everything ignite," says John Pundt a nearby resident.
Pundt and others watched as the roof collapsed and assumed there were firefighters still inside, but the death toll Monday evening was known to be only two, with others missing.
As the night fell into early morning, the procession of bodies, each carried out by the brothers of their fire stations, began to mount from three to six to nine. It was the deadliest fire fight since 9/11 and struck a chord with every firehouse in the nation. Mayor Joe Riley noted that he couldn't remember ever losing a fireman in his more than 30 years as mayor and, in one tragic night, he had lost nine.
Information on Tuesday morning was slim and it would take days before federal and state investigators determined that the fire began on a loading dock outside the building, though the exact cause had yet to be determined. The cause of death for all nine firefighters was smoke inhalation and severe burns.
While local officials left the investigation to federal and state agencies, they focused on something just as important: honoring the brave lives of Charleston's nine heroes. The city quickly developed a fund for donations to help the families and private businesses also began taking up collections from patrons. As the victims' names were given out in the afternoon, along with their ages and their years of service, it was evident that the tragedy had taken life-long firemen as well as the breadwinners of young families.
Flags across the state and elsewhere quickly came down to half-mast. Memorials were made at the site and at the impacted fire stations and others around town. At one North Charleston station, nine boots were placed out in front of the building. Black sashes soon adorned fire trucks throughout the city and would remain through the week until Friday's memorial service.
A procession of about 300 fire trucks and cruisers, including trucks from New Orleans and Ohio, hummed through downtown streets and out past the scene of the fire Friday morning. Folks huddled on street corners and those in the midst of the morning commute got out of their vehicles and paid their respects as the trucks passed.
A small boy on Calhoun Street wore a firefighter costume. As his mother was leading him to the car afterwards, she asked him and his older sister if they knew what they were there for. The girl responded with a barely audible, "no." The boy shuffled along behind, not seeming to understand either.
Their mother spoke softly, "We came to honor our heroes."
More than 10,000 paid their respects at the memorial service at North Charleston Coliseum, including firemen representing more than 700 fire departments from across the nation and Canada.
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas noted Charleston's firemen don't have badge numbers, they have names. And this leader of more than 200 gave personal stories of each of the nine firemen. Some were quiet, some were anxious. All of them had a passion for the job.
Mayor Joe Riley, who just the week before had commented on how his speech at the reopening of City Hall had been one of the hardest in his career, was faced with the challenge of honoring these men who had died protecting the city.
"We will never be the same. No," he said. "We may not be firefighters, but the lessons they gave us were even more about life. Courage, duty, and service. They inspire us today. They will inspire the community for all the days to come. All the while they are resting in eternal peace."