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'Everybody lost good people' in fire

Charleston, S.C., tries to cope with the deaths of nine firefighters trapped in a furniture warehouse blaze.

June 20, 2007|Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writers

CHARLESTON, S.C. — When Melvin Champaign decided to join the Charleston Fire Department three years ago, his mother didn't worry for him, even though he was in his 40s and hadn't fought a fire in his life.

"He always said he wanted to make something of himself, instead of going to work at McDonald's," said Stella Ragin, 72. "I put him in God's hands -- I said, 'Let His will be done.' "

On Tuesday afternoon, Champaign's family had gathered at his mother's modest house on James Island, bringing condolences and covered dishes and memories of her son, one of nine firefighters who died in Charleston's devastating warehouse fire.

His cousin, Carl Champaign Sr., talked about Melvin's faith in God. Big sister Gardenia Champaign spoke of his selflessness.

"He said, 'Sis, I've always dreamed of saving lives.' "

Nephew Tony Moore said his uncle loaned him money for rent and a car, but never asked for it.

"We lost a good man," said Moore, 30. "But everybody lost good people. All those firefighters must have had the same character."

The Monday evening blaze was the single deadliest incident for U.S. firefighters since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On Tuesday, this storied South Carolina port city was stricken by a searing grief that would be familiar to New Yorkers -- though the details could seem mundane, given the extent of the loss.

The fire had roared through a Sofa Super Store, a nondescript beige building set among car lots and strip malls, about four miles west of the historic downtown core. The cause was unknown, but Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said arson was unlikely.

"It had nothing to do with the Devil," Moore said late Tuesday afternoon as he quietly picked through possessions his uncle left in his van, including a black fire helmet and pictures of his three children. "It just had human errors to do with it."

The fire apparently started in a storage area, spreading swiftly through the large single-story metal building and a connected three-story warehouse crammed with heavily combustible polyurethane foam sofas and mattresses. Portions of the roof collapsed, the metal walls glowed red and glass popped out of vast display windows.

"Fire was just shooting out of the top of the building like a tornado," said Mark Hilton, 49, a teacher from Ridgeville, S.C., who spotted smoke billowing from the building about 6:15 p.m. "The firemen were yelling and running around. Their chief was hollering orders at them. They were all working so hard."

At least one employee inside the building was rescued. The firefighters who died were apparently looking for others.

Ugly intimations of their fate came early in the night. Jimmy S. Gallant III, a city councilman and police chaplain who was at the scene, said firefighters knew as early as 7:30 p.m. that some of their comrades were trapped inside.

At about 10 p.m., Hilton said, a fireman covered in black soot walked through the parking lot in tears.

"He was just broken down," Hilton said. "I knew there must be something bad."

On Tuesday morning, the firefighters' bodies were carried one by one through a passageway outside the smoldering rubble. Rescue workers lined up to salute.

Charleston Fire Chief Russell Thomas, who remained at the scene until the firefighters' bodies were carried away, choked back tears at a Tuesday news conference.

"We lost over 100 years of service to the city of Charleston," he said. "I can't say enough for these nine guys; I lost nine of my best friends. To the families, you gave them to us, and we protected them as best as we could."

The store did not have an automatic sprinkler system, which Thomas said could have slowed the fire. Large commercial buildings are not required by South Carolina law to retrofit fire sprinklers. Pending federal legislation, called the Fire Sprinkler Incentive Act, would give tax incentives to retrofit fire sprinklers in commercial buildings.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford ordered all flags at state buildings to be flown at half-staff. All over Charleston, store signs mourned the fallen firefighters.

At an afternoon news conference, Riley praised the men from a wood-paneled room in Charleston City Hall, surrounded by oil portraits of Andrew Jackson and George Washington.

"They are heroes," he said. "They are now a part of the history of this city."

A few miles away on James Island, Champaign, 46, had been considered a hero long before his death.

His mother, Stella, had festooned the walls of her prefabricated home with pictures of her youngest boy, the one who everyone expected to grow up and make the family proud.

His smiling face was everywhere, wedged between photos of Nelson Mandela, Venus and Serena Williams, and black firefighters from New York City just after 9/11.

Champaign fulfilled his expectations after growing up in the flat, marshy low-country where his ancestors toiled in slavery. He graduated from high school, spent eight years in the Army, worked in the building trades and taught Sunday school.

Stammering with grief and pride, cousin Carl Champaign recalled paying a visit to Chief Thomas, an old high school buddy, after learning that Melvin wanted to join the 125-year-old Charleston Fire Department. Carl gave his cousin a glowing personal recommendation.

"And he was everything I told him he was," he said.


Fausset reported from Charleston, and Jarvie from Atlanta.


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