Chief Rusty Thomas
Photo credit: Photo by Susan Nicol Kyle
After the anniversary memorial service at the site last Wednesday night, Chief Rusty Thomas went home and hung up his uniform for good.
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Chief Rusty Thomas donned his Class A uniform for the last time June 18.
That date used to be a proud anniversary for Thomas -- the day he reported to Station 8 for his very first duty assignment as a Charleston firefighter.
Now, however, that date will not hold cherished memories.
It was last year on June 18 that nine firefighters perished inside a blazing furniture store.
After the anniversary memorial service at the site last Wednesday night, Thomas went home and hung up his uniform for good.
"I haven't worn it since. I don't plan to."
The horrific incident -- with the greatest loss of firefighters since 9/11 -- occurred on his watch.
Thomas, 50, leaves the department Friday after 32 years.
A retirement celebration will be held from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Gaillard Auditorium -- the same place where the nine fallen firefighters were remembered last week on the first anniversary.
The embattled chief announced his retirement over the fire department radio last month on the eve of the release of a review panel's critical report on the deadly blaze.
An emotional Thomas said the events had taken their toll.
He knew each of the firefighters personally. They were not employees, but friends.
Thomas said last month that his leaving may help those who remain truly begin healing and the department move forward.
On Wednesday, Thomas said he knew the time was right. "It's very hard to walk away. When you've done something for 32 years, it's hard to leave it behind. I always put the fire department first."
As a senior in high school, Thomas was being sought to play baseball for several colleges. But, his thoughts were on fire engines, not America's favorite pastime.
Four days after graduation, he walked into the chief's office. On June 18, 1976, he reported to his first officer: then Acting Capt. Ronnie Claussen.
"How ironic," the chief said. "He's now been appointed interim chief."
Three days after he walked into that fire station for the first time, Thomas got to go home. A ship in the port was leaking, and he was one of three trained in hazmat. "We had no hazmat team. So, we called for help from all over the state."
It was that incident that triggered city hall to realize the department needed a hazmat team.
While reminiscing about his career, the discussion always steered back to June 18, 2007. His voiced choked with emotion as he struggled to find words. "It was, it was the worse day ever..."
There was a pause in the conversation. "It was difficult. I had to keep more from going into that building when they knew the others were in trouble. I stood at the front door. Two got by me. They didn't get far, and came back out..."
The death toll may well have been higher if he had not taken the stance.
His voice cracks as he describes facing the families as they waited and prayed for word about their loved ones. "I had to face them. It was awful," he said. "Something I'll never, ever forget because I knew them all."
But, before the ashes had cooled, his actions on the fireground were being scrutinized by fire service officials across the country.
Yet, Thomas stayed committed to helping his firefighters cope. He instituted a number of changes based on the recommendations of the review panel.
"It's the memories of those guys that made me come to work everyday."
Thomas said he can't say enough about Worcester Chief Jerry Dio. "He has been just incredible. He's been through it. Everything he told me has come true. I really appreciate his support. You can't do it by yourself when something like this happens. You need someone who's been there."
The chief isn't about to sit still long, either.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do. I've always been a people person. That's who I am. I was out there in the stations, on the calls, everywhere."
Thomas, who used only one sick day in 32 years, said he'll be catching up on some well overdue family time.
"My heart will always be with the Charleston Fire Department."