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Thousands attend memorial service to honor 9 South Carolina firefighters killed in blaze

    NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Nine caskets lined the front of a coliseum Friday as thousands of firefighters from across the nation, their hats in their hands, honored nine colleagues killed in a furniture store blaze.
    With an orchestra playing, uniformed escorts walked the men’s wives, siblings and children to their seats in a long procession of red carnations, tears and hugs.
    The fire Monday night created the single largest loss of firefighters’ lives since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Beside the caskets, the faces of its victims looked out proudly from large photos: Capt. William ‘‘Billy’’ Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford ‘‘Brad’’ Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; James ‘‘Earl’’ Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melvin Champaign, 46.
    Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, the son of a firefighter, told personal stories about his men, pausing to say each name before launching into tales that often drew burst of laughter from the crowd as he imitated their voices and mannerisms.
    He recalled one fire call with Drayton in 1977. It was about 3 a.m.
    ‘‘He’s hollering, ’Rusty, get this thing going! ... That’s my house!’’’ the chief said to laughter.
    Kelsey, he recalled, had the energy of the ‘‘Energizer Bunny.’’ Hutchinson was nicknamed ‘‘Lightning.’’
    ‘‘It’s not because he moved so fast,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘My dad said, ’Lightning would have to strike around him, to get him to move.’’’
    Thomas also issued a challenge to the remainder of his department. ‘‘The challenge is that we’ll never forget,’’ he said. ‘‘When we go to work, we will never forget these nine great heroes that worked for the City of Charleston Fire Department and served this community like no one else has ever served.’’
    A firehouse bell was struck 15 times and bagpipers played taps.
    Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. told the crowd that the men were heroes.
    ‘‘It was their calling, it was their training, it was their duty and, unflinchingly, without hesitation, with extreme courage, they did it,’’ he said. ‘‘They are public servants of the highest order. They want to serve. They want to help. They want to save. And they want to protect.’’
    Gov. Mark Sanford said questions may always linger about a higher purpose behind the deaths, but that the men proved their courage Monday night.
    ‘‘Who we are crucially depends on what we’re willing to stand up for in life. In short, are we willing to walk the walk?’’ he said. ‘‘They walked their walk right into the company of angels and to heaven’s gate.’’
    The first of the nine funerals was planned for later Friday.
    Before the memorial service, a procession of about 100 fire trucks wound through streets lined with mourners in the firefighters’ honor, passing the charred warehouse and several of the city’s firehouses.
    ‘‘When we lose one, it affects us all,’’ said Lt. James Diego, who drove from the Newport News, Va., Fire Department with several colleagues. ‘‘Most of us have suffered some sort of loss in our careers, and it’s a way to pay back the people who supported us when we had a line of duty death.’’
    Black bunting hung over the lighted signs around the packed 9,000-seat arena. With arena full, about 200 people gathered to watch a broadcast of the service at a convention center adjacent to the coliseum, and 100 firefighters, Red Cross workers and neighbors watched on a big screen set up outside.
    Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the gathering that the nine firefighters ‘‘demonstrated the same bravery our nation witnessed on September 11.’’
    ‘‘The tragedy of Monday reminds us that we live in a world in which danger is all around us,’’ he said.
    Chertoff also read a message from President Bush and the first lady. ‘‘Their willingness to sacrifice for others demonstrated the true meaning of heroism,’’ Chertoff read. ‘‘Each of the fallen will forever hold a cherished place in our hearts.’’
    Two presidential candidates, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, were among the mourners, but South Carolina Firefighters Association President Joe Palmer said dignitaries would be seated at the back, well away from firefighters’ families.
    ‘‘This event is about the firemen who were lost — honoring them and their families. It is not a political event and shouldn’t be politicized in any way,’’ said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters.
    The investigation into the cause of the warehouse fire and the men’s deaths was still under way Friday. Federal, state and local agencies involved in the investigation planned a news conference Saturday.
    Officials on Thursday released tapes of several 911 calls about the fire. While federal investigators have not confirmed where the blaze broke out, some of the 10 recordings bolster the assertion several city fire officials have made that it likely started at the back of the store in a covered space between the showroom and a warehouse crammed with furniture.
    A store employee told The Associated Press that workers frequently smoked cigarettes in that area and were strongly cautioned to carefully throw them away.
    Federal investigators have not discussed possible causes for the fire, and have not revealed if they are considering whether a cigarette could have started the blaze.
    ‘‘We have made fantastic progress in this investigation, however, it still has to be a very systematic, deliberate investigation,’’ said Earl Woodham, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
    In a gesture of solidarity, medics from the Framingham, Mass., Fire Department hung their department T-shirt at a makeshift memorial outside the charred store.
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.

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