Counselors Continue to Help Charleston Pick Up the Pieces Following Tragedy

Before the ashes cooled at the Sofa Super Store, counselors at the local state mental health center had started an effort to help survivors. CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Memories of the Charleston 9 will live forever. They were husbands, fathers, brothers...


Before the ashes cooled at the Sofa Super Store, counselors at the local state mental health center had started an effort to help survivors.

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Memories of the Charleston 9 will live forever.

They were husbands, fathers, brothers, best friends, neighbors, colleagues. In addition to being firefighters, they made unique marks on their communities.

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 walked out of their homes on June 18 for the last time.

They perished doing their job -- battling a blaze in a furniture store.

Before the ashes cooled at the Sofa Super Store, counselors at the local state mental health center had started an effort to help survivors.

Understanding the connotations associated with mental health care and counseling, professionals realized they had a challenge ahead of them. They also were faced with the intricacies of dealing with firefighters and their families -- a course they weren't familiar with.

That was until National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Executive Director Ron Siarnicki shared the program used in New York City.

"It's a great model, and we are so fortunate that Ron also introduced us to members of the New York crisis team," said Debbie Shogry Blalock, executive director of the Charleston/Dorchester Mental Health Center, who has spear-headed the counseling effort.

Two members of the FDNY crisis team traveled to Charleston within days of the tragedy to offer their assistance. That visit marked the beginning of a lasting connection, said Gerald G. Mishoe, project manager of the Charleston Firefighter Support Team.

Sharing ideas is one thing. But, it's better to see how they are implemented. That's why the Charleston team accepted FDNY's invitation to travel to New York to witness their support program.

"It was an incredible experience. We learned a lot," Mishoe said.

Blalock said the professional relationships have helped strengthen the Charleston effort. In addition to helping firefighters, the team also meets with family and friends of the fallen heroes and fire department retirees.

Mishoe, who is with the South Carolina State Firefighters' Association, is the logistics coordinator and one of two peers on the team that also includes two full-time counselors, a part-time counselor and two part-time psychiatrists.

The other peer from the state association, Richard Denninger, is no stranger to tragic incidents. He is a retired FDNY firefighter who was involved with the crisis services unit.

Blalock said the team works well together, and respects the expertise the members bring.

She added that Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the city council have fully supported the team since its conception. "They realize this is a long term commitment. But, they also understand how important our services are . . ."

Chief Rusty Thomas also realized that firefighters would be needing help, and did more than openly promote the group. "He called all of his officers together. We told them what we have to offer as well as how we would be setting it up. We also told them what to look for, the signs of stress. We encouraged them to call us any time day or night if they thought someone needed our help. They have," Mishoe said.

When a call for assistance comes, regardless of the hour or place, a member of the team responds. They take turns being on call.

"We stay as long as we're needed. If I feel more intervention is needed right away, all I have to do is call," Mishoe said.

While confidentiality is always important, Blalock said it's even more vital for this program.

A separate office has been set up miles from downtown so those seeking assistance don't have to mingle with the public. Side entrances offer even more privacy. A call for help goes straight to a team member 24/7 not a switchboard.

This content continues onto the next page...