Fallen Charleston, S.C. Firefighters Mourned

type='node' cid='39505' />Thousands of firefighters from around the world are here this morning to honor their fallen brothers.

  • CHARLESTON-- Bagpipers, salutes, the signaling of the bell -- the memorial service for nine firefighters here Friday was steeped in tradition.

    Thousands of personnel from around the world -- from the tiniest volunteer company to large metropolitan departments -- turned out to honor their fallen brothers.

    The tribute started downtown. More than 200 fire engines, ladders and other apparatus of every make, model and color draped in black bunting made its way on a route that took it passed the scene of the deadly blaze.

    Citizens lined the sidewalks or stepped from their vehicles as the procession passed.

    "There were people everywhere, holding up signs thanking us. The whole city shut down for the day," Darren Terry, driver for the Hartsville, S.C. Fire Department. "They were waving flags. There was a giant flag hanging from an overpass. People waved."

    Nine hearses lined the curb outside the coliseum.

    Despite the number of personnel and citizens assembled, it was quiet. Conversations were conducted in low voices.

    Nine flag draped coffins are positioned in front of center stage.

    An orchestra performed as the crowd filed in to take their seats.

    Brian McGeehan, with the Dublin (Ireland) Fire Brigade, said he was honored to be present. He said if there'd been more time, a contingent would have come to honor their American brothers. "But, it's just me."

    McGeehan, a firefighter for 26 years, said the fire service is one huge family worldwide. "You walk into a station whether it's in Dublin or wherever, and tell them you're a firefighter and you are welcome."

    He said there was little publicity about the deaths of the nine firefighters in Ireland. "I changed my vacation plans, and threw things in a bag. It's just sad we don't see a gathering like this unless it's for a sad reason."

    McGeehan's wife is from South Carolina.

    A third generation fireman from Darlington, S.C. said nothing would have kept him away. "I just can't believe it. How horrible to lose nine. It's bad enough to lose one," said Chief Jim Stone.

    "It's devastating. I can't imagine how it would be to deal with it."

    Two Vancouver firefighters said the trip to Charleston was the least they could do to honor their brothers.

    Gord Ditchburn said they want the families to know their loved ones' lives were not lost in vain.

    "We need to stay together at a time like this.

    Ditchburn said he was representing the Province as well as his fire department.

    Tim Wilkinson, president of the Richmond Fire Fighters Association, said the fire family has no boundaries. "We're here to honor them. We're here to show respect."

    The men said firefighters in British Columbia have been watching and reading accounts of the incident.

    It was a homecoming for Baltimore City Firefighter Carlton Williams who grew up in Charleston. He went to school with the wife of fallen Firefighter Earl Drayton.

    "I talked to her on the phone," he said. "This is terrible."

    Nine flag-draped coffins were lined up at the front of the stage. A portrait was positioned at the head of each.

    Moments before the ceremony started, nine officers marched down the center aisle. Each carried a helmet.

    As the families started their long walk up the aisle -- escorted by a firefighter -- a spotlight illuminated their hero's portrait. As they arrived at the coffin, the honor guard placed a helmet.

    The firefighters were lauded for giving the ultimate sacrifice, and Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. vowed that the citizens will always remember them.

    The crowd wiped tears and chuckled as Chief Rusty Thomas told personal stories about each fallen hero, his friends.

    As he stepped from the podium, the audience rose to applaud.

    Moments later, tears flowed as the bell was rung, signaling 5-5-5.

    After the service, hundreds of personnel lined the sidewalk while the caskets were rolled to the waiting hearses. Family members who included many children as well as elderly, followed.

    The pipers played as the coffins were placed in the hearses. Just as the last one was being loaded, two F-18s screamed overhead.

    Houston Firefighter John Drew said he came to support Charleston's finest. "It was very well done."

    Drew said when Houston lost Grady Burke in 2005, they received tremendous support. Friday, it was their turn.

    Ryan Hornback, from City of Calumet, Ill., was one of many pipe band members who attended the service. He said there's an unwritten rule in the fire service -- never forget.

    He said many pipers were staying in the Charleston area to play at the firefighters' funerals over the next few days. "We're also thinking about playing at the fire scene."

    Atlanta Lt. Jerry Andrews Jr. called the event "very touching."

    "When something like this happens we come together as one big family. When a firefighter is killed he was trying to help someone."

    Walter Parker, an Atlanta chief, said: "We received so much help after we lost a firefighter in November, I made a pledge to go to funerals???Everything has been so nice here. Not just the service, the people here have been wonderful."

    A lieutenant from the District of Columbia also was impressed by the memorial service. "It was excellent. It was very well done. We always stick together," said Dan Dugan, who said he also heard accolades about Chief Thomas. "He really knew his people."

    Albert Cherascot, of the Columbus Fire Dept., said the Charleston Fire Department deserves credit for putting the ceremony together in such short notice. "This all came together really quickly."

    The personal messages from Thomas and Riley are what moved Lt. Bob Hale from Saginaw, Mich.

    "They were both so impressive. You could tell the chief really knows his people. He was really in touch. The mayor too, he was great. I plan to write letters when I get back."

    Brody Dietzer, a former Charleston firefighter before moving to Michigan, said he enjoyed working with Thomas. "He's genuine. If he meets you today, he'll remember your name next month no matter what. It's incredible."

    Dietzer, now a firefighter in Michigan, said the ceremony was fitting. The fallen would definitely have approved.