The Pine Ridge Fire Department lost two volunteer captains in the Charleston blaze.
Photo credit: Susan Nicol Kyle
Pine Ridge Deputy Chief Jeffrey Thompson holds a family picture. Standing at left are Frank Thompson and his brother, Brandon. He is seated..
Photo credit: Susan Nicol Kyle
The deputy chief at Pine Ridge Volunteer Fire Company was joined at the fire scene by his other brother, also a firefighter, and their dad.
SUMMERVILLE, S.C. -- Jeffrey Thompson got a knot in his stomach Monday night when he got no answer on his brother's cell phone.
"We'd heard about the fire. But, Brandon wasn't supposed to be working."
First, a scroll at the bottom of the television reported there may be one firefighter missing. Then, the phone calls started. Rumors were rampant -- three, no seven, maybe a dozen.
"My cell rang. My friend couldn't even talk. He didn't have to. I told him I was on the way."
The deputy chief at Pine Ridge Fire Department was joined at the fire scene by his other brother, also a firefighter, and their dad.
"We had to be there. Brandon would have wanted us there. We all knew that."
Other families gathered at the fire station closest to the deadly blaze to wait.
"They'd come out exhausted. They'd tell my dad they found another, and then, another. But, not Brandon. They'd head right back in. Brandon's body was the last one they located."
"He'd have wanted to be the last one out. They found (Capt. Louis) Mulkey about 10 feet away. Brandon was all about tradition. He would have said: "Cap goes first."
"Chief Rusty came up to my father and said: "it's time for you to bring your son out. Then Rusty collapsed in Dad's arms crying."
As soon as Brandon was brought out of the rubble, his brothers and Pine Ridge Chief Ben Waring carried his body to a waiting coroner's vehicle.
The body of fellow volunteer captain from Pine Ridge -- Mike "Frenchie" French -- was found about 200 feet away. The two went into the building together.
Waring and others who were supposed to be groomsmen in Thompson's wedding in October will be pallbearers on Saturday night.
Thompson said his brother's fiance, Rachel, is a strong woman. But, it's still difficult.
The volunteer fire department that lost two captains went out of service early Tuesday morning. Volunteers from companies are standing by in the two stations through the weekend at least.
"We're all numb. You read about this happening, but not here. Not in Charleston. Everyone knows everyone. I feel so sorry for Rusty. He's got a tremendous weight on him. He's such a great leader, a natural."
Outside the main station, two sets of turnout gear sit at the base of the flagpole. In addition to floral arrangements, there's a tin of chewing tobacco and a couple of packs of Marlboros. A bagpipe CD plays continually near the makeshift memorial, and the music drifts into the station.
One firefighter said helping out at the station and being around his firefighter family is the best thing for him. "I've cried. We've all cried for two days. And, it's not over."
Instead of flowers, the volunteers are asking for donations to make one of Thompson's dreams become reality -- a thermal imaging camera.
Thompson has been on a search for a grant to purchase one or possibly two cameras. "That was his mission. He so desperately wanted to get a camera. Flowers are nice. But, he and Frenchie would both want money to go to the fund."
Thompson, who is coordinating his brother's funeral, said he hasn't been home much since Monday. "When I'm there, I think about Brandon dead. When I'm here, I think about him alive."
The expressions of sympathy have overwhelmed the department that runs about 1,200 calls annually. "We've got a crew from Mobile coming. We got a call from firefighters in Las Vegas, Nashville and I don't know where else."
Thompson said his brother was proud to wear the Charleston gear. He had opportunities to move to other stations, but chose to stay at "five and dime." All three who perished were detailed at another station that day.
The deputy chief said his brother was a good pump operator. "But, he would rather be on the nozzle. He'd fight you for the nozzle. That's what he loved"