Charleston 9 honored at annual memorial ceremony

By Stacy

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- At the annual ceremony remembering the Charleston Nine, leaders read out the name of each fallen firefighter followed by a bell toll.

"When that bell rings, oh my heart and the tears just flow," said Elaine Merritt, aunt of Capt. Billy Hutchinson, one of the Charleston Nine.

Each year, Merritt brings her sister Dot to the memorial so she can honor her eldest son.

"Nine firefighters fell that day. So we're not the only ones crying. It was just such devastation. We have to come back here," Merritt said.

As the years pass, hundreds come every June 18. They remember Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, James Drayton, Michael French, William Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson.

"When it all started going down you could hear guys trapped in here asking for help but there was no way," said Capt. Pete Salvo, who was on duty the night of the Sofa Super Store fire. "Every one of these guys, I knew them. They were my friends. I worked with them. Just coming out here, to be out here with them, is the most honorable way I can give something back to them."

"We just wanted to stop and pay our respects for the nine that perished in the fire," said David Kalb, a volunteer fire chief in Kentucky. "Even though it's seven years later, we still remember. They're in our hearts."

Officials said the department is safer today because of what happened seven years ago. That meant everything to Hutchinson's family.

"I'm so proud the city continues to remember them in an occasion like this," Merritt said.

The memorial on Savannah Highway is always open and free to the public.

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