A statue of a firefighter stands at the main entrance of the Charleston 9 memorial site off of Savannah Highway at the former Sofa Super Store in West Ashley. Nine firefighters lost their lives battling the furniture store blaze.
Six years ago, we were different. Lives change, some more than others. Time intervals can seem longer to one person than another.
Six years ago, I didn't live in Charleston. Until recently, I didn't know anything about the Charleston 9. I respect firefighters and understand part of a first responder's job is to put him or herself in harm's way for the good of the community. But, I'm not personally invested with this tragedy like so many others are in the Lowcountry. I'm not apathetic, either, though.
Tuesday afternoon, I visited the vigil site of the former Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway where six years ago, nine firefighters' lives were lost in a blaze believed to have been started by a cigarette. I arrived as a journalist – duh, right? Stepping out of my car with the pretty little “Press” window decal on the lower left of my windshield, I was in the reporting zone.
I walked around to the passenger side where my camera and zooms lens sat on the front seat. I took off my lens and replaced it with another before walking to the gate of the memorial site.
This was the first time I had seen the large flagpole neighbored by nine, small toolbox-like structures with names of the deceased. A bronze firefighter statue stood at the beginning of a path connecting the gate entrance to the pole. I snapped pictures, toying with the zoom and focus of the camera.
A local television reporter struck up a conversation, talking about the overcast skies and difficulties of doing a live shot during an upcoming show.
“Were you here when the fire happened?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” he said. He was older than me, but probably by less than a decade. “But, we have tons of old footage of the fire.”
He walked away, covering every inch of the manicured lawn around the flagpole with different B-roll shots. I returned to taking pictures.
Then, I realized how quiet it was. There were a few fire personnel leaning on cars in the parking lot or on the gate. They quietly chatted but mostly just exchanged somber glances.
My camera clicks suddenly felt like a nuisance. I'm a person first and a journalist second, so I stopped.
That fire wasn't six years ago. The firefighter's friends – their brothers – haven't been gone that long, have they?
Or maybe the elapsed time is much longer. The days since those nine men went to work and didn't return to the station and didn't return home have been painful.
The only certainty was that people are still visibly affected by the tragedy, and rightfully so. One man drove a car into the lot directly in front of the main gate. He parked, walked toward the entrance and became still.
People were welcome to walk on the grounds, but he didn't. Perhaps he felt he couldn't or shouldn't. Wearing a Charleston 9 commemorative T-shirt, he took a few deep breaths and walked back to his car, driving away a minute after he arrived.
Another woman wearing dark sunglasses on an overcast day walked up to all nine of the mini toolboxes. She paused at each, a couple longer than others, with hands clenched and head bowed.
The people close to the firefighters didn't just suffer a tragedy six years ago.
They're reminded of it everyday.
The pain may never go away. But, those men arrived at the Sofa Super Store intent on bringing peace and minimizing destruction. I hope those deeply affected find what the men fought for.
Check out a photo gallery from the Charleston 9 memorial site here.