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Funerals highlight firemen’s bravery


CHARLESTON, S.C. (BP)–Most friends and family members agreed the nine firefighters who died in the line of duty June 18 perished “doing what they loved to do.”

Funerals for the victims of the blaze at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, S.C., were held over the weekend. Three of the services were at Southern Baptist churches.

“We don’t understand why these things happen on this journey in our life,” pastor Tim Garvin, a former volunteer fireman, said at Capt. Mike Benke’s funeral June 23 at Palmetto Community Church, a Southern Baptist congregation. “We will see our brother again and greet him.”

A lone bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” after a fire siren wailed one last time for Benke, The Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston reported.

“What Captain Benke did was what every American knows firefighters are prepared and willing to do,” Mayor Joe Riley said. “I want to say to all of you that the power of God and the love of friends and family enable us to move forward.”

Benke, 49, is survived by his wife Kimberly and three children. His fellow firefighters recalled him as a gentle man who laughed a lot and was devoted to his job and family, The Post and Courier reported.

In church on Sunday, Kimberly Benke thanked the congregation for their support.

“God puts you where you need to be when you really need to be there,” she said. “Mike would love all this. He would love the church coming together like this.”

Engineer Brad Baity, 37, was remembered at his June 23 funeral service at Charleston Baptist Church as someone who consistently put others first. Friends said he had a dry sense of humor, was nicknamed “Betty Crocker” because he enjoyed watching the Food Network, and often helped people in need.

Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas recounted how Baity volunteered to help a woman clean up her belongings when her home was destroyed by a fire. “He never asked for anything,” Thomas said, according to The Post and Courier. “All he wanted to do was help.”

Art Wittner, the only firefighter from Station 19 on the shift June 18 to return from the furniture store alive, said Baity and several other firefighters had made a pact in February to take care of each other’s families if something tragic happened.

“Our families would be OK,” Wittner said, according to the newspaper.

Baity’s wife Heather is a volunteer in the church’s preschool department, and their daughter, Mariah, 8, recently was baptized. They also have a son, Noah, 5.

Capt. Billy Hutchinson, a member of Pinecrest Baptist Church in Charleston, had 30 years of experience fighting fires when he died in the furniture store blaze.

“Billy was one to give his soul, his life for his friends,” Al Smith, the church’s pastor, said at Hutchinson’s funeral June 22. “And he did.”

Smith said Hutchinson, 48, will be remembered for his message of sacrifice as well as his ability to find pleasure in the simple things of life. The fireman was happy with an “egg and sausage sandwich, chocolate milk and the sports page” spread open at the station house, The Post and Courier reported.

Others in the packed 500-seat church remembered Hutchinson as a golfer, a sports fanatic and a cool-headed leader who frequently offered a smile and who cut hair part-time at a local barbershop. His survivors include his wife Phyllis and three children.

At a memorial service for all nine firefighters June 22 with more than 9,000 people in attendance, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the men “demonstrated the same bravery our nation witnessed on Sept. 11.”

Chertoff delivered a message from President Bush, who said the firefighters’ “willingness to sacrifice for others demonstrated the true meaning of heroism” and “each of the fallen will forever hold a cherished place in our hearts.”

The mayor and the governor also spoke at the memorial service, and Republican presidential candidates Rudy Guiliani and Mike Huckabee attended, the Associated Press reported.

“It was their calling, it was their training, it was their duty and, unflinchingly, without hesitation, with extreme courage, they did it,” the mayor said. “They are public servants of the highest order. They want to serve. They want to help. They want to save. And they want to protect.”

A procession of about 100 fire trucks wound through the streets of Charleston before the memorial service as mourners lined the route.

AP also reported that an anonymous donor in Washington gave $45,000 to a fund for the victims’ families. The Charleston fire chief said the gift is one of the ways communities all over the nation are paying tribute to the fallen firefighters. In the chief’s own neighborhood, residents raised nearly $6,000 from a bake sale to benefit the families.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the cause of the fire continues. Officials confirmed June 23 that the fire started in the loading dock area of the furniture store, though they would not yet announce a cause.
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Compiled by Erin Roach.

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