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South Carolina City Mourns Nine Fallen Firefighters

June 22, 2007 at 6:50 PM EDT

RUSTY THOMAS, Chief, Charleston Fire Department: I’m proud to be a fourth-generation firefighter serving in the department for 31 years and the chief of 15. In the City of Charleston Fire Department, you just don’t have a badge number. We don’t have badge numbers in the city of Charleston Fire Department. Everybody knows everybody, and I know everybody.

Monday, June 18th is a day our city will never forget — never. We lost nine of the bravest men doing what they loved to do best: fight fire. Those guys were the best.

This is how Rusty Thomas is going to remember each one of these guys.

Captain Mike Benke. Captain Benke knew his job and performed it well, all the time, trained his people all the time, was a go-getter when there was a fire, after 29 years on the job.

Captain Billy Hutchinson, he did something that a lot of people don’t even dream about. He retired from the City of Charleston Fire Department and returned.

Captain Louis Mulkey, what a guy. The Summerville town and community will lose a great, great person.

Engineer Brad Baity, now, let me tell you about this guy. This guy would go to work on a 24-hour period and wouldn’t say 10 words. And if he did say something, you had to say, “Brad, would you speak up a little bit? I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

Mark Kelsey, you know that little Energizer Bunny, that little pink bunny? That’s Mark Kelsey. All Mark Kelsey wanted to do was fight fire.

Assistant Engineer Michael French, when he came to the office to get a job, he didn’t want to know about the pay, he didn’t want to know about the insurance. He could care less. Here was his question: “Hey, Chief, when do I get one of them badges?”

Melvin Champaign, Melvin came to the office, I mean, he was decked out.

He had on a — I guess you’d call it a leather hat with a feather sticking out of it. And he sat down, and he — this is what he wanted to know. “Hey, Chief, man, I just want to help people. I just want to help somebody.”

Earl Drayton — now, I promise you this is a true story, 1977. We get a call at like 3 in the morning for a house fire at St. Phillip and Morris. So I get around, and I crank the truck up. And he’s hollering, “Rusty, get this thing going!” And I said, “What’s the problem? I’m going as fast…” He said, “That’s my house!”

Brandon Thompson, the other night, his dad would not leave the scene. And he told me that, until he brought Brandon out, he said, “Chief, I’m not leaving until you find him and you bring him out.” And I respect that.

That’s the kind of memories, and that’s the kind of relationship I have with every single one of these guys and every single one of those guys back there that belong to me.