Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas walked into his firehouse with ash-coated boots and a smudge of soot on his face today. His eyes looked a little puffy and red. Chief Rusty, as everyone calls him, told me he'd just been out to see the spot where his nine firefighters died.
"I had to do it," he told me, but he couldn't bring himself to do it yesterday. He's been on the job for 30 years and has never lost a firefighter in the line of duty until now.
Earlier in the morning he gave me a tour of his office to show me his fire engine red computer, painted especially for him after he told the IT department "if it isn't red and doesn't shoot water, I don't have time for it." He doesn't use email. He knows all of the 200-plus men in his department by name. And he couldn't stop telling me about the nine men who died…the one who always jingled his keys in his pocket, the one who begged him for a job for weeks until he relented, the one who joined the department at age 47 because "he told me, Chief I just want to help people, just let me join."
Chief Rusty talked about these men for close to an hour. He never cried.
But I sure came close.
Editor's note: A fund has been set up for the families of the firefighters. It's the Bank of America City of Charleston Fireman's Fund. Any Bank of America in the United States will accept donations. You can also mail donations to:
PO BOX 304
Charleston, SC 29402