'Charleston 9' Remembered on Anniversary of Tragic Blaze

Last June 18, nine Charleston firefighters walked out of their homes for the last time.

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- "June 18 was the worst day of my life."

That's how Michael Campbell feels about the day he lost his best friend in the world -- Michael French.

Many throughout this southern city are feeling the same way today. Their lives will never be the same.

Last June 18, nine Charleston firefighters walked out of their homes for the last time.

They met their untimely deaths as they fought a furniture store fire.

Now, Captains Billy Hutchinson, Mike Benke, and Louis Mulkey; Engineers Mark Kelsey and Brad Baity, Assistant Engineer Michael French; and Firefighters Earl Drayton, Melvin Champaign and Brandon Thompson are part of Charleston's history.

Raised in the same family, Campbell and French shared a multitude of interests, including fishing and fighting fires.

Their bond was tight.

Campbell, who went back to fighting fires in Charleston after the tragic incident, said he had a numb feeling in his gut when he learned that several firefighters were missing while battling the Sofa Super Store.

Even though a television clip showed French with a two-and-a-half inch line, Campbell said he just knew. "I can't explain it. I knew ..."

After dropping off his parents at a nearby fire station to wait with other families, Campbell headed to the scene where firefighters were searching and removing their colleagues.

He waited.

When French was carried out, Campbell was at his side. "I had to walk him out --to take him to the truck."

Campbell said he knew nothing or no one would be able to keep "Frenchie" out of the building, especially if he knew his buddy, Brandon Thompson, was in danger.

Thompson, Campbell and French volunteered in their communities. French was a captain at Pine Ridge Fire Company's substation in New Hope, while Thompson was a captain at the main station.

The firefighting trio was often referred to as "The Magnificent 3."

That fateful day changed lives forever.

Since their lives were so intertwined, there's no escape. The memories are there whether he's at work or home.

He's lost interest in some of the activities the two enjoyed -- like fishing.

"When I pull in, Mikey would be hooking up the boat. He'd be ready to head out. I haven't been out in that boat. I have no desire whatsoever. Until a few weeks ago, I hadn't even been fishing."

He and his family have kept abreast of every aspect of the investigation -- the reports, the shouts for change.

"It haunts me that no one could hear Mikey calling for help. He called a Mayday, but no one heard him ..."

For Pine Ridge Deputy Chief Jeffery Thompson, the memories of his brother, Brandon, are ever present. "It's a void that will never be filled. I'm always thinking about him. He was more than my brother. He was my best friend, fellow firefighter."

Brandon Thompson had spear-headed a project to obtain thermal imaging cameras for his company. He understood their importance, and the use of one just may have saved his life and those of his eight colleagues.

After his death when word spread about his effort to get the cameras, donations poured in and the life-saving tools were obtained.

Thompson was wearing his Pine Ridge turnout gear when he was killed in the furniture store.

He wasn't supposed to be working that day. When he didn't answer his cellphone, his family knew.

As the firefighters searched, Thompson's brothers -- also firefighters -- and their father waited nearby. When his body was removed from the rubble, Chief Rusty Thomas told his father it was time to bring him out. Then, the crying chief collapsed in his arms.

Jeffery, his brother, Frank, and Pine Ridge Chief Ben Waring carried Brandon's body to a coroner's vehicle.

Brandon was the last firefighter removed from the rubble. Jeffery said that's the way his brother would have wanted it.

French's body was found about 200 feet away. As he suspected, Thompson learned that French and his brother went into the building together.

Randy Hutchinson said it doesn't seem like it's been a year since he lost his brother, Billy.

"He loved his job. He loved the brotherhood, and everything that goes along with that ..."

Billy Hutchinson did more than fight fires and mentor rookies. He was never without his shears.

"He was a barber. Most of the time he didn't charge, but if he did, it was $2. Everyone came to his station for a trim," his brother, a former Charleston firefighter recalled.

A newly promoted officer announced one day he was closing down the firehouse clip joint. "Word got around really quickly. It wasn't long before a higher ranking officer walked in for a trim," Hutchinson said with a laugh. "I know the new guy got the message. There was never another word about stopping him."

Hutchinson said he's about as ready as he can be for the tributes.

Messages of support for firefighters and the families of the Charleston 9 are on marquis throughout the city -- just as they were after the tragic incident last year.

The nine fallen firefighters were remembered in a solemn, respectful service Wednesday morning.

The video tribute included personal snippets of each man's life. There were pictures of the firefighters with babies, in wedding photos, in school pictures, playing sports, laughing, joking around with their friends, family and fellow firefighters. Their families also selected a song to accompany their segment.

Tonight, only family and firefighters will be attending a candlelight vigil at the site of the fatal fire.

Family members will place candles at the spots where their loved ones were found.

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