At Memorial Weekend, Charleston 9 Remembered

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was visibly moved by the National Fallen Firefighters' Memorial Service on Sunday.

EMMITSBURG, MD -- Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was visibly moved by the National Fallen Firefighters' Memorial Service on Sunday.

Nine Charleston firefighters who perished last year were among the 110 honored during ceremonies at the National Fire Academy here.

"This was such an inspirational, heart rendering event. And, this setting is so beautiful. This was such a wonderful tribute," Riley said as he gazed around the historic campus.

A large contingent from Charleston including fire command staff, firefighters, family, friends and counselors travelled to Maryland to attend the ceremonies.

Riley said he had no idea what to expect. But, added he was impressed with the precision and detail involved.

Each family of a fallen hero is presented with a rose and a U.S. flag that has flown over the Capitol and the National Fallen Firefighters' Memorial.

Firefighters from across the country volunteer to participate in various functions. One involves carrying a folded flag and red rose to a presenter, usually a fire chief.

After the flag exchanges hands, the firefighter salutes slowly.

When South Carolina was called, nine Charleston firefighters marched up one by one, presented their items and offered a solemn salute.

Hunter Benke, 12, said he was impressed by the way people remembered his father, Capt. Mike Benke. "It was good. Yeah, he would have liked it."

JoAnn Cofield, Benke's mother-in-law, said she was impressed by how nice people were. "The event was nice. Everyone's been so amazingly kind." She said she thought of Benke as a son rather than a son-in-law. "We were close."

With tears in his eyes, Frank Thompson said: "This was Brandon's day. He had been here several times to honor other firefighters. Today, it was for him."

Brandon Thompson also perished in the Charleston furniture store fire.

As he was reminiscing about his son's experiences, Thompson looked up and smiled: "That's our new chief right there."

Thompson, who met the new man at the helm after the candlelight vigil Saturday night, said he is pleased with Riley's choice of Montgomery County, MD Chief Tom Carr. "From what I've been reading, we've got the best. He's genuine."

Carr introduced himself and spoke with family members following ceremonies that included the unveiling of a plaque containing the names of the fallen heroes. The individual greetings were brief.

Jeff Thompson, Brandon's brother, said Charleston area firefighters are anxiously awaiting Carr's arrival. "It was a great choice. It was nice of him to talk to all of us this weekend."

A number of fire officials extended a hand to Riley following the service, offering their sympathy. Many also congratulated him on his selection.

"Fabulous, a fabulous choice. I'm happy for our fire department and our citizens," Riley said. "Chief Carr is an outstanding chief, and will help our firefighters and our city."