Man builds Harley in honor or nephew, rest of Charleston 9

Firefighters took the time to sign the bike before and after the memorial service on Monday. (Brandon Geier/WCIV)

By Valencia

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Each name was called, one-by-one, followed by a single bell ring. As the sound lingered, tears fell from the faces of those at the service.

Monday, hundreds of people, including firefighters, family, friends and strangers attended a ceremony to remember the Charleston 9.

"The reason why we come every year here is to honor those guys and to make sure that other firefighters throughout the country and the world know that these guys didn't die in vain -- that they gave a life lesson," said Joe Johnston, a Charleston City fireman for 21 years.

June 18, 2007 came with lessons of survival, and to never take life for granted.

Robert Tarence still remembers that day like it was yesterday.

"I was in Florida, right outside of Gainesville, Florida. My sister called me crying and all upset and she's like 'Mikey is missing.'"

Tarence's nephew Michael French was caught in the flames.

Terrified, Tarence searched for an explanation of what was happening. Immediately, he anticipated the outcome.

"I turned the news on, and it was on in Florida. I seen the magnitude of the fire, and, I told my dad, 'You know, we need to get to Charleston 'cause he didn't make it out of that fire.'"

To help himself heal, Tarence built/rebuilt a motorcycle in his nephew's honor.

"I bought the bike off of Ebay, and I went to Chicago and got it. Brought it back, tore it all a part, went through the engine and punched it out to a 1200," Tarence said.

After a full year of work and $7,000 in repairs, Tarence was able to rebuild the bike with his nephew's picture on it, and the names of the rest of the Charleston 9.

"It was just a long process. A lot of blood, sweat and love went into that bike," Tarence said. "I'd do it all over again."

With tears in his eyes, Tarence said Michael was "called" to be a firefighter.

"I hate to say it, but he died the way he would've wanted to die -- serving his community."

Tarence built the Harley as a tribute to the sacrifice made by the Charleston 9. He hopes his symbol of love will keep others from forgetting.

"As long as I'm alive and have breath in my body, they won't never forget. If I have to build 20 motorcycles and display them all over South Carolina, they won't forget."