The Story Behind The Charleston 9

Listen to “Charleston 9”

I was chillin at Salty Mikes at the Charleston City Marina downtown on the Ashley River in Charleston, South Carolina the evening of June 18, 2007 hanging out waiting to pick up my son Coleman from basketball practice at First Baptist Church School gym over in the Market area. It was a beautiful evening to be alive, and in such a beautiful place. I was admiring the glory of God’s goodness as so plainly evidenced by His creation. The sun was low on the horizon and the moon was up on a cloudless blue sky. The tide had just turned so the anchored boats were slowly turning on their moorings. Then, I noticed a plume of smoke on the horizon across the river, apparently down Highway 17 towards Savannah. Others in the crowd began noticing, then phoning, and we all knew that something bad was going down somewhere to the south. Sirens became audible in the distance, and we knew the good guys were on the way to help.

I went on as scheduled to pick up Coleman and we made our way home farther up the Ashley River off of Highway 61. Along the way, there were several places that I could see smoke in the distance in the general direction where we had seen it previously. I was thinking about our public servants who place themselves in harm’s way whenever the need arises, and the boys I always saw hanging out in front of the fire station on Ashley Hall Plantation Road, which houses Engines 16 and 19, that I passed by at least twice a day to and from my neighborhood.

When we got home I went to turn the television on to see if there were any reports of the incident I had witnessed earlier from the Marina. The horrific fire at Charleston Sofa Super-store and the beehive of activity at that blazing building was being reported on local news. I watched in amazement and horror knowing that fine men were in great danger trying to save that old tin can of a building. By 8 o’clock the fire had consumed every bit of fuel and twisted the steel frame of the building, and it crashed in with men still inside.

The grim reality began to set in that some of our fine fire-fighters were unaccounted for, and presumed dead. Each team took roll and began to collect a list of men who were nowhere to be found, and were last seen entering the building. Before long, they had identified 9 men who didn’t get out.

Shock, horror, and reality of the loss of life quickly degenerated into analysis, examination, second-guessing, assessing blame. I quickly became disinterested in the politics of the tragedy, and wanted to know the facts about how it all went down, some information about the men who died, and try to imagine the unimaginable; the feelings and emotions of 9 men who knew their fate was sealed in their last moments of life on earth.

A newspaper piece written by journalist Ron Mencha was published in the Post and Courier two months later with a play-by-play. It revealed the names and home bases of all who perished, and I realized then that five men who I saw frequently at the station down from my house without knowing their names had perished in the battle; Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Brad Baity, James “Earl” Drayton, and Billy Hutchinson. I looked at their photos and could vividly remember seeing them at work preparing, maintaining, or relaxing and waiting to serve at the station house.

A song lyric began to formalize in my mind as I wept and read and re-read the newspaper piece, and the story of the events of the night, and the fine men who perished, became the ballad “Charleston 9”.

The lyric is a condensed, meter and rhyme version of the newspaper piece. The score begins with a pastoral acoustic riff, then kicks into a driving rock beat to coincide with the beginning of the doomed fire fight. It builds, changes keys several times, and becomes more edgy as the plot thickens. Then it stops abruptly when the building collapses. A slow, mournful passage takes over as the reality of the situation begins to sink in, and the piece ends with a Roll Call, calling out each name of the dead firemen and concludes; “Honorable Men. Gone but not forgotten.”

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