Thousands mourn Charleston firefighters

Firefighters from across Canada gathered Friday in Charleston, S.C., to join thousands of mourners in honouring nine of the city's firefighters killed this week in a furniture store blaze.

Firefighters from across Canada gathered Friday in Charleston, S.C., to honour nine of their American comrades killed in a massive furniture store blaze.

Pallbearers enter a memorial service with the caskets of nine firefighters in Charleston, S.C., on Friday. ((Dave Martin/Associated Press))
The Canadians joined thousands of mourners at a public memorial service at the North Charleston Coliseum, where officials set up jumbo-screen televisions and hundreds of fold-out chairs outside for the overflow of mourners.

The nine firefighters were killed Monday when the fire blew out windows and collapsed the building in the deadliest firefighting tragedy since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The City of Calgary sent six members of its fire department to pay their respects, said Mark Faires, president of the Calgary Firefighters Association.

"The fire service operates as a brotherhood," Faires told CBC News. "When we lose our members anywhere in North America, we provide our support. It just goes without saying."

Friday was declared a day of mourning in Charleston and most city offices were to stay closed.

Nine caskets lined the front of the coliseum as uniformed escorts walked the men's wives, siblings and children to their seats at the service.

Beside the caskets, the faces ofthe victims looked out proudly from large photos: Capt. William (Billy) Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford (Brad) Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; James (Earl) Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melvin Champaign, 46.

Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley Jr.praised the menfor their heroism and dedication to others.

"What kind of unusual people were these nine men and all their fellow firefighters? I'll tell you, they're public servants of the highest order,"Riley said.

"They want to serve, they want to help, they want to save and they want to protect."

'It affects us all'

Before the service, a sombre procession of more than 100 fire trucks passed by each of the three firehouses that lost men in the blaze, as well as the furniture store.

Among dignitaries attending the servicewere former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansasgovernor Mike Huckabee — both presidential candidates — as well as Barbara Richardson, wife of Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is also running.

"When we lose one, it affects us all," Lieut. James Diego, who drove from the Newport News, Va., fire department with several colleagues, said before the service.

"Most of us have suffered some sort of loss in our careers, and it's a way to pay back the people who supported us when we had a line of duty death."

With files from the Associated Press