McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
There was no need for the national anthem sung by a trio or taps played by a lonely trumpet.
There was no need for the mayor or the governor or the dignitary who brought words from the president.
All you needed for the memorial service was what you saw Friday morning when you walked through the door and down the steps.
Nine caskets, side by side.
Each casket draped with a flag. Each casket accompanied by a framed photo of the Charleston firefighter who lay dead inside.
The mourners called them heroes and saints. The speakers talked about how the nine brave men will live on in history.
But the caskets spoke without words. They formed a short, silent poem — each line slammed shut with a period.
Melvin Champaign, 46.
Brandon Thompson, 27.
Earl Drayton, 56.
Michael French, 27.
Brad Baity, 37.
Mark Kelsey, 40.
Louis Mulkey, 34.
Mike Benke, 49.
Billy Hutchinson, 48.
Ten thousand mourners filled the North Charleston Coliseum. Firefighters came from all over the United States and Canada, not just from New York and L.A. and Boston, but from Lorain, Ohio, and Saginaw, Michigan.
A Charlotte, N.C., man, Dolph Biggs, looked for his old buddies with the fire department in Washington, D.C. Biggs worked there 26 years before he retired and came south. He was on duty when there was a plane crash and a subway wreck on the same day.
On Friday he left Charlotte at 3:30 a.m. to get to the service. He has attended many a firefighter's funeral.
About how many?
On Thursday the ones who arrived early went to the scene of the fire, out on Savannah Highway.
You think of Charleston as carriage rides and Spanish moss. Savannah Highway is not that Charleston. This part of Charleston looks like any other town. The Sofa Super Store sat out here next to the BP station and Dunkin' Donuts and Tire Kingdom. You would never look at it twice unless you thought it might be time for a new couch.
Now everybody looks. They back up traffic on the road, and they park across the street to take pictures, and they stand on the sidewalk to look at the burned-up, blown-out husk. Debris in crazy twisted piles, everything the color of ash.
A giant crane peels off pieces of the showroom and the warehouse. Federal investigators in dusty pants spread out over the grounds, taking measurements. Nine green poles mark where the bodies were found.
For now it looks as if some of the firefighters went in the building to save at least one comrade who was lost inside. But even that much is still not clear. And there's no telling when it will be.
The truth takes time. And so the memorial went on ahead, leaning on smaller things.
Rusty Thomas, the fire chief, told stories about all nine men. They were funny stories, a relief from the shroud over the day, but you noticed something as he talked. He spoke of the men in the present tense.
Earl Drayton likes to jangle the change in his pocket. Mark Kelsey hates to sweep the floor. Brandon Thompson doesn't mind taking a sick day.
As if they were going to walk in any minute to start a new shift.
It is still hard to believe, whenever such a thing happens. Two police officers shot to death in Charlotte. Thirty-two killed by a madman at Virginia Tech. Now nine in Charleston who went into the fire and did not come out.
Sometimes we are too fragile to make the shift from present tense to past.
That is the logic behind memorials. Invocation to benediction. Anthem to taps. Beginning to end. Fold up the program and put it in your pocket.
But it is never that easy.
Before the official ceremony even started, everyone stood as the families were brought in. Each firefighter's family was led by an escort who carried a single helmet, cradling it in his hands like a crown.
The Charleston Symphony played something sad and slow. Family members came in two by two. Sisters now without brothers, children now fatherless, brand-new widows.
There were so many family members it seemed like it took half an hour to seat them all. They came down the center aisle and up to the nine caskets there at the front. That is why it took so long. They lingered.
The rest of the crowd stood in silence and the violins swelled and all of a sudden one woman flung her arms in the air down there in the front, by the caskets. Her cry rose, loud and wild, up off the arena floor.
"Ohhhh, Lord!" she wailed. "Why, Jesus? Lord have mercy!"
And then somebody held her tight until she went quiet, and all you could hear was the dirge of the violins, and a baby crying in the stands.
(c) 2007, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
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