The firemen of engine companies 16 and 19 moved around their station house in a daze Tuesday.
Black bands covered the badges on their uniform shirts. Grief and fatigue loomed behind their bloodshot eyes.
"We lost nine of our brothers," said Capt. Clifton Jones, who worked at the Ashley Hall Plantation Road fire station with six of the nine Charleston firefighters killed overnight Monday.
"We love them and we’re going to miss them."
Seven men on duty at the station roared out on board Engines 16 and 19 Monday night to battle a furniture-store fire.
"One on No. 16 came back," Jones said. "Nobody from 19 came back."
It was the worst thing that could happen to a fire house, losing almost an entire crew in one blaze.
A few miles away, firefighters at Charleston Fire Station 10 mourned the loss of three men from their house.
Jones, who works at the Ashley Hall station with Engines 16 and 19, was supposed to be on vacation this week. But when he heard about the fire raging Monday inside the Super Sofa Store on Savannah Highway, he came to work.
"As soon as we found out, we had somebody down and it was a major fire, everybody came back," Jones said.
Jones did not sleep Monday night as he helped at the fire scene. Tuesday, he consoled grieving firefighters and their families. His fatigue was so deep he could not remember how long he had been with the Fire Department.
But he was doing what firefighters do for each other.
They are tight-knit bunch whose jobs require them to spend every third day away from their families, living with each other.
"That’s who you sleep next to," Jones said. "That’s who you eat with. That’s your family."
The store burst into enormous flames, and there were people trapped inside. One firefighter, James Earl Drayton, loved his job so much he came out of retirement two years ago. After saving one person's life, he rushed back in to the flames to see if there was anyone else trapped. He perished in the fire. He even left his helmet behind.
Outside the charred hulk of the furniture store, someone planted nine crosses made out of PVC pipe. Nine U.S. flags waved behind them. Others brought balloons, wreaths and bouquets of roses.
Billy Robinson, a volunteer firefighter in North, brought a wreath; he feels that all firefighters are his family.
"It hurts even though you don’t know them. I think about how close I am to the people in North. To lose one would be a tragedy. To lose nine would be unthinkable."
These are true heroes, and we mourn them along with Charleston. A fund has been set up to help the families of the nine fallen firefighters. I strongly encourage anyone who has some money to spare donate. Keep these heroes, and their families left behind, in your thoughts and prayers.
Donations can be sent to: City of Charleston Fireman’s Fund P.O. Box 304 Charleston, SC 29402