Saturday marks fifteen years since nine Charleston firefighters lost their lives battling the Sofa Super Store fire on June 18, 2007.
The city, families and friends made a commitment to never forget the Charleston 9. A memorial now sits next to a fire station on Savannah Highway at the site of the fire.
For Rachel and John Cole, the day is personal. Rachel’s fiancé at the time, Brandon Thompson, was one of the nine. John worked on Ladder Truck 5 with three men who died that day.
“I was with them every day,” John says.
In the time after the fire, Rachel and John grew close and supported each other. Now, they use the anniversary to make sure the community never forgets those men.
This year will mark the second annual stair climb on the anniversary of the fire. Many ‘stair climbs’ take place on 9/11, where participants trek up 110 flights of stadium or coliseum steps to mimic the Twin Towers.
Rachel says a lot of support came from families and first responders in New York who had experience with the aftermath of tragedy. The Cole’s chose to plan a stair climb on the date of the Charleston fire, to remember all those lives lost in service.
“We had a lot of support from all over the country after the fire here happened,” Rachel says. “So it’s been important for us personally just to kind of return that support and show those that have supported us or gone through it since then, that they do have a community here.”
Rachel says some days are easier than others, and coming up on 15 years is emotional.
“We could say one day it seems like it’s forever ago, and then other days it seems like it was just yesterday,” Rachel says. “But we personally try to take it as a remembrance that we are very fortunate for where we are today and take what’s happened to us and make it more make us more appreciative of what we do have.”
Rachel and John say it is important to make sure people do not forget. That is why just this week, John talked to Charleston’s newest recruit class. He explained what that day felt like and shared his experience in the field with those taking on the job.
“That term never forget is kind of thrown out there loosely a lot,” John says. “It’s our job to make sure that people never forget those folks because it seems to fade away over a period of time.”
Rachel and John say it is not just people in the Lowcountry, but also all across the U.S. who have supported them the whole 15 years. John says the force is a brotherhood that always cares for each other.
“Before the fire, I had heard the term a lot,” Rachel says. “I mean, the guys in the department all use it. I would hear them say it, but I didn’t know what that truly meant until unfortunately, we had the tragedy here. And I definitely know firsthand what it means to see the brotherhood and to experience the love of those that loved our guys.”
On Saturday, people will gather at the North Charleston Coliseum to climb the 110 flights. The flights will be counted as participants go up and down. Each person will get a card with the name of one of the first responders who died on 9/11 to also remember their names.
“It’s not a race,” Rachel says. “It’s not a competition. It’s truly a time to come and remember and reflect. So, we welcome all people that are able to come out and climb, you know, we’re not going to leave anybody behind.”
The climb will start at 8:46 a.m., with registration starting at 7 a.m.
You can read more about the Charleston 9 and their stories below.
Firefighter Brandon Thompson - Ladder 5
Engineer Brad Baity - Engine 19
Capt. Louis Mulkey - Engine 15
Engineer Mark Kelsey - Ladder 5
Capt. Mike Benke - Engine 16
Capt. William Hutchinson - Engine 19
Firefighter Melvin Champaign - Engine 16
Asst. Engineer Michael French - Ladder 5
Firefighter James “Earl” Drayton - Engine 19
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