NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. Joined by thousands of firefighters from across the country, this grieving region bade farewell to "our dear heroes" Friday morning and struggled to find meaning in the deaths of nine men who battled a furniture store blaze this week.
"Firefighters charge into dangerous places when the natural human instinct is to flee rapidly," marveled Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., whose city suffered the worst loss of American firefighters in a single event since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "Why, why do they rush into smoke-filled, intensely burning buildings? Why? To defeat their only enemy: fire."
Nine flag-draped coffins formed a somber line at the front of the North Charleston Coliseum as the families of the fallen marched quietly into the hall, escorted by an honor guard and a pipe band from the New York City Fire Department. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra played softly, punctuated by an old woman's "Oh, Lord" and the wail of a baby.
The packed auditorium, which seats more than 10,000, was a sea of uniforms. Badges glinted in the dim light, and shoulder patches identified mourners as belonging to public safety agencies from as far away as San Bernardino, Seattle, Toronto and Novato, Calif.
The nine firefighters died Monday night in a blaze at the Sofa Super Store on the outskirts of Charleston. The fire, which is still under investigation, apparently started in a storage area and raced through the store and a connected warehouse filled with combustible sofas and mattresses.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford lauded the fallen first responders for living life at full speed and for sacrificing for vocations they deeply believed in. But he also wondered, mournful, "Where do we go from here?"
"We live in the age of 'whatever,' and these were not 'whatever' kind of guys," he said. "They were fully engaged in life, gave their lives being engaged in that life, which begs this larger question: How should we then live?"
The closest thing to an answer Friday was a simple one: through memory of the dead men and service to the community.
Charleston Fire Chief Russell B. Thomas Jr., whose father was also a firefighter, shared personal stories of the men he lost, of Engineer Mark Kelsey, the "Energizer Bunny," and Capt. William Hutchinson, who retired from the department, only to come back to battle more blazes.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff read a message from President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush: "Their willingness to sacrifice for others demonstrated the true meaning of heroism. Each of the fallen will forever hold a cherished place in our hearts and in the memory of our country."
And several candidates to replace Bush stepped off the campaign trail Friday to pay their quiet respects: Democrats John Edwards, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd, and Republicans Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mike Huckabee.
But to the Charleston firefighters in mourning, it was their far-flung brothers in arms gathered here whose presence meant the most.
"It was a humbling experience" to see so many first responders at attention in the big hall, said Charleston Fire Capt. Jamie Green, a 19-year veteran who was at the fatal fire.
"The whole way back from the scene, I thought I couldn't do it anymore. It sucks the life out of you," Green said in an interview after the service.
"But after seeing this, I couldn't do anything else. This is who I am."