CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP)–At least three of the nine Charleston firefighters killed June 18 in a furniture store blaze were connected with Southern Baptist churches in the area.
Capt. William “Billy” Hutchinson, 48, was a member of Pinecrest Baptist Church in Charleston, and will be memorialized at a funeral service at the church at 2 p.m., Friday, June 22. He is survived by his wife Phyllis and three children.
A 30-year veteran of the fire department and a part-time barber, Hutchinson earned the ironic nickname “Lightning” from his fellow firefighters because “he never seemed to get in a hurry,” according to his chief, Larry Garvin, in a story published June 20 in the (Columbia) State newspaper.
Engineer Brad Baity, 37, who drove the fire department’s big trucks, attended Charleston Baptist Church with his wife Heather, a volunteer worker in the church’s preschool department. Their daughter, Mariah, 8, recently was baptized. They also have a son, Noah, 5.
Baity, an ex-Marine, was a “born-again Christian who knew the Lord,” said pastor Jack Moore, and a “very conscientious, topnotch firefighter who was studious in anything he did.” Moore said his church has set up a benevolence fund to help the family.
Capt. Mike Benke, 49, and his wife Kimberly were members of Palmetto Community Church in Charleston. The church held a vigil for the 29-year veteran fireman on June 19. His funeral will be held at the church Saturday, June 23, at 11 a.m. In addition to his wife, Benke is survived by three children.
Edgar Boles, director of missions for the Charleston Baptist Association, said many churches in the area have held special prayer services for the families of the victims of the fire, the nation’s worst loss of firefighters since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He said some of the churches also have opened their doors to firefighters “as a place of solace, to be alone, to pray, whatever they need to do.” Pastors and church members also have visited fire stations to “make personal contact” with firefighters grieving over the loss of their comrades.
Boles said that in the coming days and weeks it will be important for churches to continue to minister not only to families of the victims, but also to surviving firefighters and their families.
The deadly fire started about 7 p.m. June 18 in a trash bin outside the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway. As firefighters tried to extinguish the flames, the fire spread to a porch and blew open the back door to the showroom, according to the local newspaper.
“Once inside, the fire rapidly ignited sofa and chair material near the back door,” The Post and Courier reported. “A rolling ball of fire and gas raced toward the front of the building, the combustible furniture fueling its momentum. Flames and smoke belched into the humid Lowcountry night, creating what one witness described as 30- foot tornado of flames. Hot ash pelted hundreds of onlookers.”
Four employees were in the store when the fire started, the newspaper said, and two firefighters freed one worker who was trapped in a repair workshop in part of the building after the others escaped. The firemen who died had entered the showroom in pairs but quickly became trapped before the steel roof collapsed.
“They tried everything they could to find a door to open, find a window, find some way to get to downed firefighters,” Pete Rogers of the Charleston County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad told The Post and Courier, referring to surviving fire crews. “They never stopped trying.”
As the flag-draped bodies were removed from the rubble, firefighters and police formed two lines and saluted, the newspaper said, and a local chaplain prayed over the victims. The fire marked the first time Charleston had lost a firefighter in the line of duty since 1965.
“Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished in fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying out their duties,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said. “These people will never be forgotten.”
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas struggled to hold back tears as he told reporters he had just lost nine of his best friends who “did exactly what they were trained to do.”
The victims ranged in age from 27 to 56, and they had a combined 131 years of experience with the Charleston Fire Department. One had put in enough time to retire, another worked off-duty at a barber shop, one was a part-time house painter and another helped coach football and basketball at a local high school, the Associated Press noted.
State officials ordered flags lowered to half-staff, and a large American flag was draped over a sign near the front of the store. A makeshift memorial was growing onsite as people left flowers, balloons and signs, and a group of firefighters planted nine white crosses in the ground, The Post and Courier reported.
The cause of the fire was under investigation, though arson was not suspected. The building did not have fire sprinklers because it was not required to have them. The fire chief said sprinklers might have slowed the fire but not stopped it.