7 years later: 'I don't think it gets easier'

WEST ASHLEY, S.C. (WCIV) -- Seven years ago, nine Charleston firefighters lost their lives in one of the worst fire disasters in Charleston history.

Wednesday night, the community honored them.

Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, James Drayton, Michael French, William Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey, and Brandon Thompson died in the furniture store fire.

Between them they had more than 130 years of service.

On the road to West Ashley along Highway 17 is a constant reminder of an ultimate sacrifice. The Charleston 9 Memorial Highway marks the road where the city's bravest fought their final battle in the line of duty.

"One of the victims, Billy Hutchinson, was a classmate of mine in high school. And a teammate of mine on the football field." said Wally Burbage.

Burbage is a lifelong West Ashley resident. As the owner of an insurance agency on busy Savannah Highway, he's using the sign to remind passers by of his late friend and brothers.

"We think it's important never to forget and always remember this day moving forward. And hopefully, you know, have some comfort for the families that are still mourning," Burbage said.

Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack believes the firefighter memorial is one way to cope with the city's loss.

"I think that's part of standing vigil is that allows healing," she said. "I think there's a great deal of healing with just the ability to come to work and to be with one another. I mean, firefighters take great solace in one another and being together on a day like this."

It's a day Burbage hopes no one forgets.

"I'm glad to see the community supporting and remembering. I think it's important," he said.

While the fire and its aftermath had major effects on the local fire community and how firefighters train and respond to fires, it also changed the perspectives for firefighters nationwide.

A volunteer fire chief from Kentucky stopped by the memorial Wednesday to pay his respects.

"It's changed the whole fire services in general. We're all a brotherhood, think of each other as a family. It means a lot when people come by, stop and see us when we've had a large incident like this," said David Kalb. "Even though it's seven years later, we still remember. They're in our hearts."

Officials were expecting hundreds of people to attend Wednesday night's memorial.

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