CHARLESTON, S.C. – One coached football when he wasn't fighting fires. Another cut hair at a barbershop. Yet another was known for quoting the Bible. They called each other nicknames like "Squirrel" and "Lightning."
On Tuesday, this city on the South Carolina coast mourned them all: nine firefighters killed inside a burning furniture store in the nation's worst loss of firefighters since the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
"They did exactly what they were trained to do," fire Chief Rusty Thomas said.
They went into the burning building on Monday in search of two employees who had been reported to be trapped inside.
One employee made it out. The other, Jonathan Tyrell, said he banged with a hammer, hoping someone would find him before the fire reached him. A firefighter was eventually able to pull him out.
"I hugged him and told him 'thank you' over and over," Tyrell said in an interview aired Wednesday on CBS' "The Early Show."
The cause of the fire at the Sofa Super Store was under investigation, though arson was not suspected.
Soon after the firefighters entered, flames swept the warehouse, blowing out windows and collapsing the roof.
"I lost nine of my best friends," Thomas said Tuesday, choking back tears. "To the families, you gave them to us, and we protected them as best as we could."
The men ranged in age from 27 to 56 and together had 131 years of experience with the Charleston Fire Department.
At 56, James "Earl" Drayton, known around the fire station as "Squirrel," was the oldest of the group. With 32 years on the job, he could have been enjoying retirement.
Michael French was the youngest firefighter at 27, and had joined just 18 months ago.
Melvin Champaign was nicknamed "Pimp Daddy" because of his flashy clothes. But the name belied his love of Bible study.
Capt. Billy Hutchinson, a 30-year veteran, was jokingly tagged "Lightning" because of his slow, deliberate pace. Hutchinson, 48, worked off-duty at a barber shop.
Brad Baity, 37, was a part-time house painter. Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34, helped coach football and basketball players at Summerville High School, where he had played quarterback.
Also killed were Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Mark Kelsey, 40; and Brandon Thompson, 37.
It was the largest loss of firefighters' lives since the Sept. 11 attacks that killed 340, and the deadliest fire in South Carolina since a 1979 blaze that killed 11 people in the Lancaster County jail.
The blaze plunged the city of 106,000 and its 237 surviving firefighters into mourning.
Some firefighters wept. Others fell to their knees, held their heads in their hands, or sat slumped on the bumpers of their fire trucks.
Mourners left flowers outside fire stations and state officials ordered flags lowered to half staff. Firefighters draped an American flag over a sign near the front of the store.
President Bush said in a statement the firefighters were "true heroes who demonstrated great skill and courage. Their unwavering commitment to their neighbors and to the city of Charleston is an inspiration to all Americans."
As they searched the building and tried to extinguish the flames, the firefighters had to pick their way through rows of sofas and mattresses stacked five and six high on racks in the cavernous warehouse, a corrugated-metal structure next to a gas station.
Capt. Jeff Harrison said the men might have fallen victim to a flashover, in which gases heat a building and its contents so intensely that they burst into flames.
Buildings with lots of furniture are especially vulnerable, because of the wood lacquer, polyurethane foam and other combustible materials that can reach flashover at a relatively low temperature — sometimes within minutes of a fire's outset.
"When they called it in, the fire wasn't all that large at the time," said Harrison, who lost three of his crew in the fire. "By the time they got there and got inside, they were just trying to make an attack on it and it got enough oxygen in there and flashed over and the whole building went up in flames."
The building had no fire sprinklers and was not required to have them. The fire chief said sprinklers would not have put out the fire but would have at least slowed it.
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said the one-story warehouse had a drop ceiling that contained lots of oxygen. That, along with the combustible furniture, made it "a much more complicated building from a firefighting event than one might imagine."