Embattled Charleston Chief Rusty Thomas Breaks Silence, Remembers Fallen Comrades

The embattled chief -- who resigned last month on the eve of the release of a controversial report -- broke his silence Tuesday to speak about the fallen heroes.

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- June 18 will be an especially emotional day here.

The city will pause to remember nine sons -- the Charleston 9 -- who perished while battling a fire in the Sofa Super Store.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas' voice cracks when he talks about his men. "They were my friends. I knew each and every one of them."

The embattled chief -- who resigned last month on the eve of the release of a controversial report -- broke his silence Tuesday to speak about the fallen heroes.

"It has been a tough time for the families, the department and the community," he said. "And, Wednesday, is going to be extremely tough."

Personal memories of each man have kept him going. "It's those remembrances that have helped me get up and come to work every day."

Every single member of the Charleston Fire Department is off Wednesday. Crews from neighboring departments will be staffing the stations from 8 a.m. through 8 a.m. Thursday.

Also, city offices will be closed until noon to allow employees to attend a public tribute.

"The anniversary service was planned by the families. They selected the pictures of their loved ones they want in the video as well as the music," the chief said. "There will be no speeches. That wouldn't be right. They even chose the person to sing..."

Thomas said the day's events are for the families, friends and firefighters. "It's their tribute."

After the service, a luncheon reception is being held for families and firefighters. In the evening, they will gather at the site of the Sofa Super Store for a private candlelight vigil.

Each family will place a candle at the location where their loved one was found. Thomas struggled to control his emotions as he described the plans. "It's going to be very emotional for everyone..."

The chief said the department continues to receive an outpouring of support from the community.

"People here feel like it's their fire department. They haven't forgotten us and what we've been going through -- not for one minute..."

He said citizens know their firefighters, and consider them part of their community. "They've done so many wonderful things for the families. They've been wonderful."

Thomas said the events of last June 18 changed Charleston forever. "It's forged in the city's history."

And, in a low voice he added that the city's outpouring of love and support will be part of that record.

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