The Wrath of the “Fire Gods” Took Nine Lives in South Carolina

CORRECTION Charleston Fire

The Charleston 9 Will NEVER Be Forgotten

It happened on June 18, 2007, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Victims of the Sofa Super Store Warehouse

Rodney Bradford Baity, age 37 was the first firefighter to be located-  Described as a “gentle giant, a man of few words, with a prankish nature at work and a dedicated  husband father who always got down on the floor to play his kids;

James a Drayton, age 56, with 32 years experienced, he was very dedicated to helping others in any way possible.He was a former Marine with a myriad of interests including – cooking‚ crabbing‚ vacationing on cruise ships‚ fixing things‚ working on cars‚ listening to James Brown‚ dancing‚ and being around children, and being a stagehand in local theater.

Melvin Champaign, 46,  struggled in childhood and was raised by his Grandmama “for his safety”. Melvin  was beloved by many and talented beyond compare – always the role model and paying it forward for others. A black belt in karate, working with youth, a carpenter, musician and songwriter, a member of the Army, who also had a passion for the ministry and earned his  Associate’s degree in theology. He married, had three children and also worked as an ironworker.  He returned to Charleston from Tacoma Washington in 2003 and  fulfilled another life long dream of becoming a firefighter until the time of his death in 2007.

Michael French, age 27, aka “Frenchie”  or “Mikey”, began his career as a volunteer firefighter at age 14,. He worked for several departments and ultimately achieved assistant Engineer in one year versus the 2 to 3 years for others to achieve. He was born on Valentine’s Day and a sweetheart from the beginning. He was laid back‚ never in a hurry‚ rarely got excited‚ but always busy. He ever stopped according to his mother. Frenchies was a devoted husband and father to a girl and boy. Frenchies was also an avid hunter and fisherman who never lost his primary passion for firefighting.  

Theodore “Mike” Benke, age 49, had nearly a 29 year firefighting career. He was the consummate soccer and all other activity” Dad  to  3 children and 3 grandchildren – always doing for others! For example He was always driving kids to soccer and baseball practices/games‚ school‚ field trips‚ working in the yard‚ homework‚ housework‚ (especially laundry‚) cleaning the pool‚ or whatever needed to be done. He ALWAYS found time to have fun with his family. He especially loved racing and telling people how proud he was of his family. He was described by his wife as a gentle soul who disliked confrontation , but filled his life with love and laughter.

William Hutchinson III, age 48, rose through the ranks of firefighting beginning at age 18 and progressed from firefighter to engineer to Captain and had the reputation as a trusted and skilled mentor. He was also a barber, bringing those tools of the trade to the firehouse for haircut. He was married with two daughters. Billy enjoyed vacationing and competing in golf tournaments in Myrtle Beach, where he won trophies for his golf skills. Billy’s wife, Phyllis remembers pinning his badge‚ collar brass‚ and name tag on every duty day for 18 years.

Mark Kelsey lost his life at age 40, after a 26 year career in firefighting in the Ashley River and then the Charleston City SC Fire Department following nine years in the US Navy. His ranks included Captain, Certified Fire Investigator and Engineer prior to his death. His hobbies included motorcycle riding, on a custom chopper with “the Wolf Pack.”
Lous “LuLu” Mulkey, age 34, achieved Captain status as well as numerous awards in the line of duty, during his 11.5 year tenure with the Charleston City Fire Department  including saving the life of a fellow firefighter. He also was very involved in coaching “his boys” in basketball and football. LuLu was married to his wife  Lauren with a wide array of friends and players who loved him dearly.  

Brandon K. Thompson was the youngest of three brothers, originally from Mobile Alabama with all boys following the volunteer firefighter track. He embraced the role of firefighter , excelled in many aspects. He held awards of firefighter of the year at Pine Ridge and was the Assistant Chief and station Captain. He also wrote grants to obtain needed safety equipment.He joined the Summerville Fire Department in 1999 and joined the City of Charleston Fire Department in 2003, foregoing a potential position as engineer to “be on the nozzle and fight fires.”    

Sadly, Brandon was not scheduled to work the day of the fire, as he had swapped shifts and parshished with his colleagues from Ladder Company #5.   Brandon’s body was the last firefighter to be removed from what remained of the furniture warehouse. He  was the youngest of the Charleston 9.

The Fire Event

The fire began at 6:15 p.m. at the Sofa Super Store warehouse 1807 Savannah Highway. It was comprised of a retail store  with 42,000 square feet and a 17,000 square foot warehouse at the back of the single story building. Firefighters arrived in three minutes addressing the initial fire in the loading dock area and with adequate visibility and occasional wisps of smoke until a rear door was opened where the fire raged.


A description from the Center for Disease Control Report-

The right showroom addition to the loading dock was opened. Within minutes, the fire rapidly spread into and above the main showroom, the right showroom addition, and the warehouse. The burning furniture quickly generated a huge amount of toxic and highly flammable gases along with soot and products of incomplete combustion that added to the fuel load. The fire overwhelmed the interior attack and the interior crews became disoriented when thick black smoke filled the showrooms from ceiling to floor. The interior fire fighters realized they were in trouble and began to radio for assistance as the heat intensified. One firefighter activated the emergency button on his radio. The front showroom windows were knocked out and firefighters, including a crew from a mutual-aid department, were sent inside to search for the missing firefighters. Soon after, the flammable mixture of combustion by-products ignited, and fire raced through the main showroom. Interior fire fighters were caught in the rapid fire progression and nine firefighters from the first-responding fire department died. At least nine other firefighters, including two mutual-aid fire fighters, barely escaped serious injury.”

Contributing Factors for  the Death and Destruction-

  • Firefighters becoming disoriented;
  • Lack of  a sprinkler system;
  • South Carolina didn’t follow Federal regulations for two firefighters to stay outside a burning structure for every two firefighters that enter on “rapid intervention missions.” Rather, South Carolina previously followed a “two firefighters in, one firefighter out rule.”(Reference New York Times article below)

Many of the 43 NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety) incident report  recommendations included this sampling-

Several examples of lack of Standard Operating Procedures:

  • lack of continuous risk assessment by those in charge outside, communicating     with those inside;
  • adequate protection of fire equipment;
  • improved training of safety techniques, improved radio equipment and communications with other entities;
  • provide compliant  fire work station garments;
  • use thermal imaging cameras to assess  the fire situations;
  • require the use of sprinkler systems and automatic ventilation systems in commercial structures, especially ones having high fuel loads.

The Controversy of Flame Retardant Chemicals in Furniture and Health Risks-  

In the Charleston Fire,The burning furniture quickly generated a huge amount of toxic and highly flammable gases along with soot and products of incomplete combustion that added to the fuel load.

A Brief History of Toxic, Flammable Furniture- (According to the National Resources Defense Council-(a New York City-based, non-profit international environmental advocacy group)-

Since 1975, furniture foam has been laden with flame retardant chemicals to meet the standards of California’s Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117). But recently, (2014) studies by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other groups have found that ame retardant chemicals in furniture are ineffective at preventing, limiting, or slowing down res.2 Further, the chemicals don’t stay in the furniture—they migrate out and collect in indoor dust. When people touch, inhale, or accidentally eat contaminated dust, ame retardants enter their bodies. Young children are especially vulnerable to flame retardant exposures.Flame retardant chemicals are associated with a variety of health risks, including cancer, hormone disruption, and diminished cognitive capacity.

Eleven responses were obtained  from 16 major furniture manufacturers , with 9 completing their survey.

On June 18, 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown directed the state to revise TB117. The revised standard, TB117-2013, improves re safety by addressing how fires actually start, eliminating the need for ame retardant chemicals. Effective January 1, 2014, companies can voluntarily comply with TB117-2013. The standard became mandatory on January 1, 2015.”

Even in 2018, I would estimate that this is still very much a work in progress. However, the two larger questions regarding loss of life for the Charleston families would be; How much of the toxic chemical load contributed to the loss of life in the Charleston fire?And, how do you weigh the need for fire retardant against the potentially harmful health risks today?

I would say ask a firefighter.  They care about saving lives. A balance between the two concerns must be achieved!




Eleven Years Later-

There is no doubt that safety standards, procedures, equipment, staffing,  and communication has vastly improved since the Charleston Nine Fire. Although there was much devastation and loss of life, invaluable lessons were learned in the midst of fire, black soot,  toxic chemicals, tears and everlasting grief.

One positive outcome was the formation of the FAST team – The Firefighter’s Assistance and Support Team was an outgrowth of this tragic Charleston event designed to help firefighters on a peer to peer basis for their grief in the performance of their jobs,  in assisting others, dealing with their  loss and making professional referrals and resources available to these brave first responders. This program has grown to include other departments.

Listen to my Shattered Lives podcast- 



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Victim, Survivor, Thriver: A New Perspective on Grief


From my perspective, after nearly 37 years, I take comfort in the knowledge that through the devastation left by the murder of my father, I have been able to thrive, bring comfort, knowledge and assistance to others in entirely different ways than I ever thought possible!

Over the past several years, mentors, including Susan Murphy Milano, homicide survivor and nationally known Intimate Partner Violence Expert and Advocate, Delilah Jones, President of ImaginePublicity, and Monica Caison, Founder of the CUE Center for Missing Persons, have given me opportunities and have made indelible marks on my life.  Thankfully, each of them has helped me graduate to true thriver mode in a myriad of ways. And, so can you!  

I would like to share the contents of a unique and valuable concept, with credit given to Dr. Barbara Whitfield a thalantologist (An expert in the study of death and dying). This chart is vital to the understanding of this progressive, useful concept.

As the theory goes, after having experienced a trauma, a person progresses, or gets stuck in a progression, from being labeled a ”victim,” then a ”survivor, followed by a “thriver.”

Upon discovering this material, I was delighted to identify myself as a “thriver” in nearly every category! Reading from left to right (Refer to chart)  from victim, to survivor to thriver, you can really see the progression of less needy, more independence and self-confidence in a person’s healing progression.

I challenge each reader to determine where they fit here and now on this chart. It is a perfect way to determine your emotional health goals. It is truly a map for post traumatic growth. Once you realize this, bask in your progress!

    From Victim to Survivor to Thriver


Victim Survivor Thriver
Doesn’t deserve nice things or trying for the “good life.” Struggling for reasons & chance to heal Gratitude for everything in life.
Low self esteem/shame/unworthy Sees self as wounded & healing Sees self as an overflowing miracle
Hyper vigilant Using tools to learn to relax Gratitude for new life
Alone Seeking help Oneness
Feels Selfish Deserves to seek help Proud of Healthy Self caring
Damaged Naming what happened Was wounded & now healing
Confusion & numbness Learning to grieve, grieving past ungrieved trauma Grieving at current losses
Overwhelmed by past Naming & grieving what happened Living in the present
Hopeless Hopeful Faith in self & life
Uses outer world to hide from self Stays with emotional pain Understands that emotional pain will pass & brings new insights
Hides their story Not afraid to tell their story to safe people. Beyond telling their story, but always aware they have created their own healing with HP
Believes everyone else is better, stronger, less damaged Comes out of hiding to hear others & have compassion for them & eventually self Lives with an open heart for self & others
Often wounded by unsafe others Learning how to protect self by share, check, share Protects self from unsafe others
Places own needs last Learning healthy needs (See Healing the Child Within & Gift to Myself) Places self first realizing that is the only way to function & eventually help others
Creates one drama after another See patterns Creates peace
Believes suffering is the human condition Feeling some relief, knows they need to continue in recovery Finds joy in peace
Serious all the time Beginning to laugh Seeing the humor in life
Uses inappropriate humor, including teasing Feels associated painful feelings instead Uses healthy humor
Uncomfortable, numb or angry around toxic people Increasing awareness of pain & dynamics Healthy boundaries around toxic people, incl. relatives
Lives in the past Aware of patterns Lives in the Now
Angry at religion Understanding the difference between religion & personal spirituality Enjoys personal relationship with the God of their understanding
Suspicious of therapists– projects Sees therapist as guide during projections Sees reality as their projection & owns it.
Needs people & chemicals to believe they are all right Glimpses of self-acceptance & fun without others Feels authentic & connected, Whole
“Depression” Movement of feelings Aliveness



©Barbara Whitfield 2003



Broken Heart Syndrome is Real

Broken hearts is the stuff of romance novels, movies and soap operas…

“The only thing a boyfriend was good for was a shattered heart.”

Becca Fitzpatrick, “Crescendo

“A broken heart is just the growing pains necessary so that you can love more completely when the real thing comes along.”J.S.B. Morse, “Now and at the Hour of Our Death

“Doctoring her seemed to her as absurd as putting together the pieces of a broken vase. Her heart was broken. Why would they try to cure her with pills and powders?”

Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina


Broken Heart Syndrome

Literature and fictional portrayals aside, there are many aspects of society that cause a true broken heart.  The most familiar is the romantic sense. I’ve been there a couple of times and it took such a long time to recover, I chose not to entertain the possibility again. It is a grief no one wants. As the walking wounded person, you want to insulate yourself from everything and everyone, aimlessly looking for purpose again. However, the walking wounded do recover and can flourish again.

However, there are true broken hearts of the physical variety.  This is a bona fide medical condition which has several names. One is “broken heart syndrome,” Another is “apical ballooning syndrome.” Still other terms are “stress induced cardiomyopathy” and  takotsubo cardiomyopathy.”  

It all began in 1990 with a Japanese physician who took an image of the heart of an afflicted patient and thought that it resembled the shape of a “Tako-tsubo” the name for a ceramic pot Japanese fisherman use to capture octopus. 


What happens?   Symptoms begin with chest pain and shortness of breath and can mimic a heart attack. The disruption of heart pumping, known as a “stunning” or a surge of stress hormones is actually acute heart failure caused by a lack of female estrogen hormones which are short-lived in nature. The left heart ventricle is the main chamber pumping the blood OUT of the heart to the remainder of the body. It temporarily cannot pump the blood forward, resulting in poor circulation, shock, or death.

This condition differs from a heart attack in that a traditional heart attack causes a nearly complete or full blockage of a heart artery due to a blood clot resulting in the narrowing caused by fatty buildup (atherosclerosis) in the artery wall. Broken heart Syndrome blood flow is reduced, not blocked. Other cases have been reported after general anesthesia, transplantation surgery, general surgery.

Complications can include accumulation of fluid into your lungs (pulmonary edema), Low Blood Pressure, Arrhythmia, or Heart Failure.

Women are Most Vulnerable

The incidence of Broken Heart Syndrome is far greater for women, 90% as compared to men;

Women between the age of 58 and 75 (median age, 63) comprise 90% of all reported case;

Cardiologists are now more aware of it with  approximately 5% of women being evaluated for a possible heart attack;

Those with a previous neurologic condition such as seizures, of brain injury or are at greater risk of broken heart syndrome;

Potential Causes

According to a 2017 article from the Mayo Clinic the following are typical causes of BHS: “Broken heart syndrome is often preceded by an intense physical or emotional event.” Some potential triggers of broken heart syndrome are:

  • News of an unexpected death of a loved one
  • A frightening medical diagnosis
  • Domestic abuse
  • Losing — or even winning — a lot of money
  • Strong arguments
  • A surprise party
  • Having to perform publicly
  • Job loss
  • Divorce
  • Physical stressors, such as an asthma attack, a car accident or major surgery

ADDITIONS TO THE LIST- I would add: Homicide, Missing Persons, Sexual assault- Rape, Home Invasion, Kidnapping,  Intimate Partner- Family Violence, Suicide 

The Good News-

Irrespective of it’s initial serious nature, medical documentation from several sources reveal that Broken Heart Syndrome is often rapidly reversible to normal, usually within 14 days. Most patients recover with no long-term damage within a month. And, there is only a small chance that BHS will recur. There is no proven therapy to prevent BHS.  However, eliminating stress is the most common recommendation for prevention.

Medical experts believe that there is a strong connection between brain functions affecting the heart. In fact many seemingly healthy people have suddenly died during a disaster- traumatic event.  Such causes are still not fully understood. Apparently, the media has not  made the connection when reporting these events.  

Thank you, Judy Rust-

Patrick Rust

Sgt. Patrick Rust

A mother’s quest to find the truth about her murdered son! “The systems”  failed Judy Rust over and over. She needs peace in her heart about her son, former Sgt. Patrick Rust who was murdered in 2007. Numerous injustices occurred over time with this still unsolved case.  Rather than peace, she experienced Broken Heart Syndrome after the murder of her son which she shares on this recent Shattered Lives Podcast.  We wish her continued better health and answers to  resolution for this case!  

To listen to her podcast click this link-



Donna R. Gore, M.A.

Donna R. Gore, M.A.


To schedule a presentation with me at your future event or  conference please contact:

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Things the Media and Public Don’t Know about Crime Victims


In the very beginning when you suddenly become the victim of a violent crime, it is a bit like wearing your shoes on the wrong feet. Nothing fits. It’s foreign and uncomfortable. You don’t know where to turn. You think the police, the detectives, the prosecutor will make your case the highest priority. You are ambivalent about media coverage, for you want everyone to know balanced against your need to maintain privacy. What you don’t know can hurt you. My former blog,  “A New Normal” explains further. 

Although each case is unique in it’s own way, each has commonalities.  There are no “Hints from Heloise” or a 2017 version by Emily Post’s great, great granddaughter “How to Act Around a Crime Victim.” There really should be a guide to be scoffed up by the public with each and every violence act which is becoming part of our new reality- whether crazed and disgruntled or terrorist. We need practical tools!

In the absence of such a guide that fits most criminal acts, some things are obvious, but often blatantly ignored by the media and a public who gleans its information from television.

A short laundry list of do’s and don’ts 

  • Should the media pick up a story on a wire service or social media, due diligence and care should be taken to ensure that law enforcement has made contact with and notified the family prior to releasing information to the public. As we know, particularly with the introduction of social media and our current President’s penchant to Tweet, is it nearly impossible to maintain that “respectable distance, as the lives of a crime victim’s family  are changing forever? I think that effort and respect must be shown, first and foremost!  As a family member who learned of my father’s death via a newspaper article, the horror of learning in this manner was indescribable!   
  • Do not focus your entire story on the violent act and never or barely mention that there are victims, fatalities and those injured.  This is HUGELY IMPORTANT to families who are shocked and offended that their beloved family member gets virtually no coverage whatsoever for the sake of “selling the news.” Although we understand that a victim’s identity cannot be released initially, good journalists do not have to depend upon sensationalism to grab attention;
  • The victim’s frailties, demons, or  mistakes should not define the story and color public perception. Should it be that after a thorough investigation, the victim’s  lifestyle or habits did indeed contribute to the end, so be it. But, it does the surviving family no favors to dwell on that aspect of the person’s life;
  • Do we even need to say, it, Get the facts correct before you publish? Even simple things such as misidentifying a victim by name (as happened with us on local news) can be very disrespectful, If your media  boss is the “get it at any cost,” leave and find another employer with integrity;
  • Don’t spontaneously run up to a distraught victim in a public setting with your phone, microphone or camera and say, “How do you feel? This is a moronic question.  Don’t expect family members to say anything that will adequately convey their feelings. It is intrusive!  Rather, it would be better to quietly seek out an approved family representative who may give an approved statement such that  it does not compromise the investigation.

Family should be counseled to not provide extemporaneous statements to the press just because…

  • Law enforcement attorneys, TV personalities and reporters all engage in this one-No matter where a case is in the span of time, never say that the family is looking for “closure.” Closure implies a finality to homicide. In fact, finality is never truly possible, as lives are irreparably changed and families pass into a different phase of coping.Rather, a more accurate way to describe this process is one of resolution, no matter if the outcome is positive or tragic.
  • Never ask a crime victim, Is it time to move on with your life? Even if a person is stuck in their grief, such a comment implies that their loved one is no longer worthy of public attention!  If family members appear to be passionate in their quest by becoming an advocate for others, recruiting help for their case, doing research on their own, focusing on publicizing the case or holding events to increase awareness, this should not be viewed as “an obsession ” In fact, it can be quite the opposite – Posttraumatic growth (PTG) is positive psychological change experienced as a result of adversity and other challenges in order to rise to a higher level of functioning.
  • If you are a media representative or a concerned family member, do consult with a professional counselor trained in dealing with trauma if you are going to be interacting with victims. In addition, seek out the help of a good support group facilitator for homicide survivors. I highly recommend Connecticut based-Survivors of Homicide.


Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before.”

(Mary) Elizabeth Edwards, former attorney, health care advocate, wife of NC Senator John Edwards, who died from breast cancer in December, 2010.




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