Charleston Mourns, Firefighters Wonder Why

Makeshift memorials are everywhere. Flags fly at half mast. Signs in front of businesses ask for prayers. This historic southern city is in mourning.

CHARLESTON -- Makeshift memorials are everywhere. Flags fly at half mast. Signs in front of businesses ask for prayers.

This historic southern city is in mourning for nine firefighters killed in a warehouse blaze Monday night.

The stench from the deadly blaze drifts for blocks. Early Wednesday morning, the charred, mangled structure was illuminated by spotlights from a county police support unit. Charleston police officers stood guard through the night.

Nine small crosses made of white PVC pipe -- one for each of the fallen -- have been placed on a grassy strip between the road and the sidewalk. At the base each has a flag and flower arrangements. There's a container of Sprite at one cross, a child's drawing at another and banners at many.

There are pictures of the firefighters at parties with their families, photos of them holding children. The memorial continues on the other side of the sidewalk, and there's a sweet aroma from the hundreds of flowers. But, it's still not enough to drown the pungent odor.

Residents continue to stop by to drop off flowers, wreaths and other momentos. One woman hugged firefighters who were standing nearby. "Thank you so much. I am just so sorry," she said, wiping tears.

A framed poem that was part of the roadside memorial was copied, and hangs in fire stations.

Yellow crime scene tape is stretched across the entrances to the parking lot of the former sofa factory, a building that once housed a large grocery store. Local investigators have been joined by state officials as well as federal ATF agents. No cause has been determined.

Hugs often replaced outstretched hands as investigators greeted arriving colleagues. Motorists slowed briefly to look while others pulled into nearby lots for a closer view.

Firefighters say the outpouring of sympathy has been overwhelming. In the plaza outside the main station -- the oldest continually operating fire house in the nation -- a memorial continues to grow.

While Firefighters John Mahaffey and Jerome Washington were standing nearby, a teenage girl rode up on a bike. She took a large sunflower, and placed it at the feet of the statue. She stood for a minute, and left without a word.

Moments later, they were approached by a middle-aged couple. "We're so very sorry for your loss," the woman said. "We're from New York. We lost 343. We know what you're going through.

The woman went on to say that her husband was retired from the FDNY. "It's going to be rough," he said. "I know..."

"I'm assigned to Station 19. That's my company, They (the victims) were my relief. All were great guys. We worked for each other," Washington said.

Black bunting hangs from the city's fire stations. Engines and ladders are draped as well.

As with many important moments, off-duty firefighters recalled what they were doing when they heard about the massive blaze at the sofa factory. Several were playing golf in a tournament to benefit the family of a colleague killed in a crash.

"There was a battalion chief with us. We heard it on the radio. We all left," said Eric Glover.

The department didn't have to recall off-duty personnel to assist. They were already there. "Anyone who was in town, and heard about it was there," Mahaffey said.

Other firefighters pointed out that more than 90 percent of their force showed up to help.

At Engine 6 on Wednesday morning, Glover and Firefighters Jamie Green, Bill Johnson and Brian Brown shared stories about their friends.

Louis Mulkey coached football and basketball at one of the local high schools. "He loved people, especially youths. He was a great leader, and a substitute teacher."

And, they said he just didn't make sure the guys made practice and got the plays right. "He kept up on their report cards, and would yank 'em out of class if he heard they were acting up," Green said.

Michael "Frenchie" French was remembered for following his dream to become a fireman. He was a go-getter, eager. While other relatives followed their paths to wear police badges, he chose boots and a helmet.

"Brandon (Thompson) was my fireman," Johnson said. "He was big. He could knock down any door that's for sure. He'd do anything for you."

When Brandon's body was recovered, his two firrefighter brothers carried him to the waiting ambulance. "We try to make things work for families. That's what they wanted," said Assistant Chief Ronnie Classen.

Thompson and French also were volunteers at Pine Ridge Fire Department.

The phone calls haven't stopped since Monday night. "One guy was crying and crying. He couldn't talk. I told him, I'm OK," Green recalled.

Wives of firefighters have volunteered to answer the phones, and help with the onslaught of visitors to headquarters.

Tones interrupted the conversation at Engine 6. Dispatch was sending the initial companies to the sofa factory to check for a kitchen fire in a house. "I think that's their first or second since the other night," Johnson said.

Brown was leaving the gym Monday when he saw the smoke. "I headed right over."

In the midst of the discussion, a group of teenagers and their leader from the local YMCA stopped by. They crowded into the fire station office, and unfurled a banner that read: Cannon St. YMCA We Love You Cannon St. Firefighters."

Crying, Myra Chamble remembered the fallen firefighters who visited the children at the local center. "They would often stop by and play. It means so much. We all look forward to them coming."

The youths fought tears as they held their banner that's now on display under the office window.

Citizens and business owners have been stopping at the fire stations with food, including homemade cookies and brownies. Some have cards or notes attached.

The firefighters say they know they have tough times ahead, but they have plenty of shoulders to lean on.

The marquee outside one of the downtown historic theaters reads: "Our thoughts and prayers are with CFD."

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