Michael French, far right, is congratulated by his uncle, Marvin Campbell, center, and Michael Campbell, his cousin.
Michael French also was a captain at Pine Ridge Fire Departmentt.
Photo credit: Joanna Hayes, PRFD
Although they had conducted a pre-plan of the building in the past few months, nothing could have prepared them for what transpired.
CHARLESTON -- Michael French and Brandon Thompson weren't just friends and fellow firefighters. They were tight, like brothers.
And, French's cousin said no one could have stopped him from trying to save Thompson.
The two -- also volunteer captains at a nearby company -- are among the Charleston nine who perished last Monday in the massive blaze at the Super Sofa Store.
"Anyone who knew him would tell you how much he loved being a firefighter. It was his life," said Michael Campbell, a paramedic and former Charleston firefighter. "Mikey wouldn't have hesitated for a split second. He was in there."
Campbell was on duty with Berkeley County EMS when he learned about the fire. Then, the phone calls started. "One guy called and said there was one man missing. But, then we saw Mikey on TV pulling a two-and-a-half."
When he saw that, Campbell said he called his father, Marvin, to assure him that Mikey was OK.
As more information circulated, Campbell said his gut told him it was bad. "I just got off the truck. I didn't care. I had to get to my father. I had to get to there."
Marvin Campbell, also a longtime firefighter, said it's difficult to describe the atmosphere at the station where families waited. "We were numb. I know we all hoped that it would be a mistake...Rusty came in and hugged me...He was hugging everyone..."
While he and his wife waited, his son went to the fire scene. It was something he had to do.
"Everybody was in there searching. They found him huddled with two guys from 16. I heard they were buddy breathing, but I haven't confirmed that."
Their bodies were found about 28 feet from the door.
"He was the sixth guy out. I walked him out. I took him on his last walk to the truck. I needed that closure."
French's uncle said he's heard that things inside the furniture store "went bad real fast." It went from nothing to a light haze to possibly a flashover and collapse. "Like everyone else, I think the fire had been burning above them for quite a while."
Although they had conducted a pre-plan of the building in the past few months, he said nothing could have prepared them for what transpired.
And, he knows that many of those unanswered questions will remain just that forever.
"I think some of them may have run out of air or got disoriented. Think about how a furniture store is set up..."
One firefighter, they said, dove across a sofa to get out.
The elder Campbell said his son, nephew and Thompson didn't think twice about grabbing a line and going into a burning building. He admired their eagerness, but said it scared him at times when they dashed into blazing houses and trailers.
"I know they would have done anything to get inside that building. There's no doubt in my mind."
French was a captain at Pine Ridge's sub-station in New Hope. "They often referred to us as the "Magnificent 3."
The trio went on their last call together less than 24 hours before the fatal fire, a wreck with entrapment. Later, it was family time.
"We had a beautiful last day together Sunday. We threw some rib eyes on the grill and threw down a couple of cold ones," French's uncle recalled as he struggled to control his emotions. "Who knew..."