Five years ago this week, the proud Charleston Fire Department was shaken to the core and mourning the loss of nine of their own.
In addition to conducting the annual ceremony at the memorial park where the store once stood, Charleston fire officials started a new tradition to honor 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.
Firefighters, who went through a grueling self-survival training course at the new South Carolina Firefighter Survival School, graduated Monday morning.
"This was the first class. The firefighters learned and practiced skills to save themselves if things go wrong," said Les Baker, a CFD training instructor.
The plan is to start the course annually on June 13 in order to finish and graduate on June 18 in honor of the Charleston 9.
The training is geared to giving firefighters the knowledge to save themselves in case something goes wrong while battling a fire, Baker said, adding that he wants them to use and practice the skills so they become second nature.
Those who volunteer to take the training shouldn't expect to sit in a classroom either.
Four 10-hour days are followed by a 24-hour period of practicing and honing the skills such as breathing when the regulator on the SCBA is damaged, search and rescue, collapse, and restricted openings.
"During that last 24-hour day, we have breaks for meals and an hour where they can relax or do whatever they want," he said, adding that while the training is intense, the students are excited about participating.
The students' enthusiasm and eagerness to learn impressed the instructors.
In the future, Baker said he wants to open up the training to others in the state.
Since the tragic fire, he and others have grasped the opportunity to travel to learn new techniques that they've shared with others. "We've also had many experts come here to conduct training."
Charleston's training facility now has a flashover simulator among other things. And, crews from neighboring jurisdictions participate in joint drills.
As for the survival school, Baker said it's a perfect way to honor their fallen brothers.