‘They died in service to others’

CHARLESTON — The nine firefighters who died fighting a blaze in a Charleston furniture warehouse were honored at a memorial Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on June 24.

Bishop Robert J. Baker celebrated the liturgy, the lives of those who died and the feast day of St. John the Baptist.

“Too seldom we remember to honor the patron of our Cathedral, the patron of our diocese, St. John the Baptist,” he said in his homily. “Today we do so on the solemnity of his birth. Too seldom we remember those civil servants who protect us as members of the military, as police officers, as firefighters until some tragedy occurs.”

The bishop urged all Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston to remember in daily prayer “those who care for us spiritually and physically, people like our patron, St. John the Baptist, who has a profound effect on our spiritual lives as our diocesan patron, as the patron of our Cathedral parish. And yes, those nine men who had been taking risks on our behalf for a long, long time collectively and have paid the greatest of prices on our behalf, with their lives.”

The bishop said that the way those nine men died, in service of others, reflected on the way they lived, which he described as loving service.

Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., a member of the Cathedral, planned to attend the Mass but was attending one of the funerals of the fallen men. The mayor had attended all of the services for the firemen. He wrote a letter to Bishop Baker to read during the Mass and in it he described the sorrow he felt at seeing the families, friends and firefighters grieving.

“This makes our prayers and the healing power of God’s grace so necessary,” Mayor Riley wrote. “I ask all in attendance, as I ask our community, to keep them and their families in our prayer.”

On behalf of the diocese, Bishop Baker extended condolences and prayerful support to the spouses and family members, to Mayor Riley, to Chief Russell “Rusty” Thomas and the entire City of Charleston Fire Department, and to Msgr. Joseph R. Roth, the chaplain of the S.C. State Firefighters Association.

 “We have today here at this altar the answer to our quest for meaning in the face of the terrible tragedy of June 18,” he said. “It is the holy sacrifice of Christ on Calvary made present in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Here we find Christ the victim helping us to deal with our own victimhood and that of our family members and friends. Here we experience the power of Calvary redeeming the tragedies of our lives, including the tragedies of sin, suffering and death. In uniting our suffering and death with his suffering and death, we are victorious over all that seems to defeat us.”

Those who died were: Capts. William “Billy” Hutchinson, 48, Mike Benke, 49, and Louis Mulkey, 34; Engineers Mark Kelsey, 40, and Bradford “Brad” Baity, 37; Assistant Engineer Michael French, 27; and Firefighters James “Earl” Drayton, 56, Brandon Thompson, 27, and Melven Champaign, 46.