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Nation's Firefighters Mourn Their Own

Like the grief, the memorial convoy seemed endless — 300 fire trucks, at one point filing past the wreckage from Monday's disaster, leading to North Charleston's Coliseum, where 20,000 people stared at nine flag-draped coffins.

Thousands of firefighters from across the nation, their hats in their hands as bagpipes played, came Friday to honor nine colleagues who died battling a furniture store blaze. From California to Massachusetts, it seemed as though every fire station in America felt this loss.

"We're a family. Families stick together — best part about this job," Capt. Thomas Alix of the North Charleston Fire Department, told CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann.

Monday night's fire created the single largest loss of firefighters' lives since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.

"They did what they and every firefighter is prepared to do every day they put on their badge — to risk their life and, if necessary, give their life to make their community safer," Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley told mourners.

The faces of its victims looked out from large photos set beside each casket: Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford "Brad" Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; James "Earl" Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melvin Champaign, 46.

"It was their calling, it was their training, it was their duty and unflinchingly, without hesitation, with extreme courage, they did it," Riley said, adding, "They're public servants of the highest order."

Outside the coliseum, more than 250 firefighters formed a human passageway for the men's family members, each wearing a red carnation, to enter the service with uniformed escorts.

"Monday June 18th is a day our city will never forget. We lost nine of the bravest men doing what they loved to do best, Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said. "Those guys were the best."

Thomas, who knew each man, told stories about them. Each time, he paused to say their name before launching into tales that often drew burst of laughter and applause from the crowd.

In one vignette, Thomas recalled a fire call he went on with Drayton in 1977.

"We got a call at like three o'clock in the morning ... and he's hollering, 'Rusty, get this thing going! ... That's my house!"' said Thomas, whose father also served in the department.


He talked of how Kelsey had the energy of the "Energizer Bunny" and how Hutchinson was nicknamed "Lightning."

"It's not because he moved so fast. My dad said, it would have to strike around him to get him to move," Thomas said.

But he also issued a challenge to his department. "The challenge is that we'll never forget. The challenge is, each one of those companies in the City of Charleston Fire Department, I want them to do something every single day," Thomas said. "When we go to work, we will never forget these nine great heroes that worked for the City of Charleston Fire Department and served this community like no one else has ever served."

Black bunting hung over the lighted signs around the 9,000-seat arena, and officials planned to broadcast the service to screens outside and inside an adjacent performing arts center and nearby convention center.

"When we lose one, it affects us all," said Lt. James Diego, who drove from the Newport News, Va., Fire Department with several colleagues. "Most of us have suffered some sort of loss in our careers, and it's a way to pay back the people who supported us when we had a line of duty death."

Nearby the ceremony, a retired Marine stood outside with an American flag.

"I joined the Marine Corps when a couple of these kids were just being born. If that don't make you cry, you're not a human being," said Robert Turner, 47. "These guys do the same thing that we did in the Marine Corps. It's all duty. It's all honor. It's all for your country or for somebody else. You don't join the service to get rich. You don't become a firefighter to get rich."

Among those expected for the service were South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — both presidential candidates — as well as Barbara Richardson, wife of Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is also running.

But South Carolina Firefighters Association President Joe Palmer said dignitaries would be seated at the back, well away from firefighters' families.

"This event is about the firemen who were lost — honoring them and their families. It is not a political event and shouldn't be politicized in any way," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters. He said firefighters were coming from as far as Arizona and the Canadian province of Alberta.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the gathering that the nine firefighters "demonstrated the same bravery our nation witnessed on Sept. 11."

"The tragedy of Monday reminds us that we live in a world in which danger is all around us," he said.

Chertoff also read a message from President Bush and the first lady. "Their willingness to sacrifice for others demonstrated the true meaning of heroism," Chertoff read. "Each of the fallen will forever hold a cherished place in our hearts."

The investigation into the warehouse fire was still under way Friday.

Officials on Thursday released tapes of several 911 calls about the fire. While federal investigators have not confirmed where the blaze, some of the 10 recordings bolster the assertion several city fire officials have made that it likely started at the back of the store in a covered space between the showroom and a warehouse crammed with furniture.

A store employee told The Associated Press that workers frequently smoked cigarettes in that area and were strongly cautioned to carefully throw them away.

Federal investigators have not discussed possible causes for the fire, and have not revealed if they are considering whether a cigarette could have started the blaze.

"We have made fantastic progress in this investigation, however, it still has to be a very systematic, deliberate investigation," said Earl Woodham, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The city and the South Carolina's Labor, Licensing and Regulation Department say they plan to investigate whether Charleston fire crews violated safety procedures and whether they had proper training and equipment to respond to the blaze.

"Part of the purpose is to look, for us or any fire department in the country, if there are lessons learned in terms of how well things were done or any aspect of it," Riley said Wednesday, adding that he's confident the department followed proper procedure.

Fire officials have defended how they handled the fire.

"They didn't make a mistake when they first went in there," said Assistant Fire Chief Ronnie Classen. "They did exactly what they were supposed to do. There's no question."