City still raw after 9 died in fire

Mike Mulkey still expects to see his grown son walk through the back door of his home each evening, still listens for the footsteps of the man who lived to fight fires and died alongside eight comrades doing just that.

“We're not doing too well,” said Mulkey, a 68-year-old Navy retiree. “We grieve every day. Some days we don't cry, but most of the time we do.”

In the year since the June 18, 2007, furniture store blaze killed nine Charleston firefighters, emotions in the city still can run raw.

There's been blame for a fire department that used outdated tactics and equipment. There's been pride from the people who knew those killed. And there's been sorrow since the first bodies were pulled from the charred wreckage — the largest single loss of firefighters since the 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.

The site of the Sofa Super Store is now an empty, weed-covered lot with a single flagpole behind a chain-link fence. Nine crosses of white plastic pipe line the front, where they've stood since the days after the fire. On a nearby utility pole beneath another white cross is a simple sign: “God Bless Our Firefighters.”

The city has bought the property, though there's been no decision on how to use the land. Some have suggested a memorial; others a small park. Families of the victims were to hold a private service there tonight.

After the funerals, Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. brought in a team of experts to evaluate the Fire Department, figure out what went wrong and make suggestions for improvements.

“We didn't have to do that, but we realized it was very important,” the mayor said last week, reviewing what he has called the hardest thing he's dealt with in 33 years running the city.

Changes recommended

In October, the team issued a preliminary report with 200 recommendations for changes in the Fire Department. Those suggestions included upgrading equipment and protective gear, offering better training and requiring that fire trucks don't roll without at least four firefighters. The city plans to spend as much as $7 million on improvements.

Last month, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas announced his retirement after 32 years with the department. A day later, a second, more scathing report concluded inadequate training, aging equipment and faulty tactics contributed to the deaths of the men.

Thomas, who retires at the end of the month, did not return calls seeking comment.

“He worked with us and with the fire department and with this community to get through the first year. That was going to be the toughest year,” the mayor said.

The second report also found that if the building had sprinklers, the fire would have been confined to the loading dock where it started, an area where employees said they commonly smoked cigarettes. Families of six of the men have sued the store and various furniture and equipment manufacturers.

“You can't find any good in the tragic deaths of nine courageous men,” said Harold Schaitberger, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. But at least Charleston will get a better fire department, he said.

A legacy

Mike Mulkey thinks the same way.

“I think good will come from this,” he said. “My son's legacy will be a much improved fire department and they will be a class act.”

When he wasn't fighting fires, 34-year-old Louis Mulkey helped coach the Summerville High basketball team, which this year won the state championship. A fire helmet occupied his empty seat on the bench.

A championship ring from the team now sits on the mantle of the home where Mike and Ann Mulkey live in Summerville, about 25 miles from Charleston. In a study at the back of the house is a crayon drawing by their great niece showing a firefighter in a yellow coat at the blaze, the words “My Herow” at the bottom.

“I feel a lot of anger,” the elder Mulkey said last week, choking up. “I think it's because he had such a good life. He bonded with the kids he coached and they bonded with him.”

Finding peace

In and around Charleston, signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts recall the fallen firefighters. Small tokens — a stuffed bear in a firefighter's coat, a toy fire truck — have been left on their graves. Louis Mulkey's has two pompoms in Summerville gold and green.

Mike Mulkey finds some peace in a meditation garden dedicated to the firefighters at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Moncks Corner, about 35 miles from Charleston.

In a sunny patch along the Abbey's drive, nine stone block benches have been placed in a circle around a low round stone engraved with a cross. Along a grassy path are nine newly planted oaks, each dedicated to one of the men.

“Those trees get to be 150 feet tall and it will be beautiful when those trees are in bloom,” Mulkey said. “It's a living memorial.”