2008: The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.
2/21/2008
ASNE Staff
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Thursday, February 21, 2008
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting


Articles

Mourning 9 heroes
June 20, 2007

'We're going to stand tall now'
June 20, 2007

Rescued from the flames
June 20, 2007

Article list

Mourning 9 heroes: 'Fearless' Charleston firefighters 'will never be forgotten,' Riley says

By Glenn Smith, Nadine Parks and Noah Haglund

June 20, 2007

Two-by-two, Charleston firefighters waded through the belly of the burning furniture store. Swirling black smoke choked the air around them and swallowed all light.

Sofas, chairs and bedding blocked their path at every turn. Darkness and confusion enveloped the men. As the blaze turned deadly, calls for help crackled over the fire department's radios. One man prayed. From another: "Tell my wife I love her."

Their tour of duty had come to an end. Nine lives. Gone.

The deaths Monday night at the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway marked the nation's worst single loss of firefighters since 9/11, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In Charleston, which had not lost a firefighter in the line of duty since 1965, the loss was like a punch to the heart.

"Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying out their duties," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said. "These people will never be forgotten."

The fallen were Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Engineer Mark Kelsey, 40; Engineer Brad Baity, 37; Assistant Engineer Michael "Frenchie" French, 27; Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, 56; Firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27; and Firefighter Melvin Champaign, 46.

They were more than men in uniform, they were members of the community they served. One was a devoted family man who loved to take his son fishing. Another was a seasoned veteran, a mentor to his younger colleagues. A third was a part-time barber who gave his firefighting "brothers" haircuts for $2 a head.

"I've just lost nine of my best friends," Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said, struggling to hold his emotions in check.

No arson is suspected, Riley said, but the State Law Enforcement Division and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the fire's cause and origin.

Charleston fire officials said the blaze started in an outdoor trash bin and quickly engulfed the store and its adjacent warehouse.

The Sofa Super Store didn't have a sprinkler system, which likely would have slowed the blaze, authorities said.

Condolences and messages of support poured in from around the country. The White House released a statement from President Bush mourning the "devastating loss of some of America's bravest."

"Our prayers are with the families and friends of nine firefighters from Charleston, South Carolina, who selflessly gave their own lives to protect their community," Bush said.

"These 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."

The blaze started about 7 p.m. Monday. As some firefighters attacked the trash-bin fire, 13 more entered the showroom to check for fire inside.

They found none, Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin said.

Then the fire spread to a porch and, suddenly, blew open the back door to the showroom. "We tried to close the door but we couldn't," Garvin said.

Firefighters quickly donned their air masks and started bringing in hose lines to attack the blaze from within. But they didn't stand a chance, Garvin said.

Once inside, the fire rapidly ignited sofa and chair material near the back door. A rolling ball of fire and gas raced toward the front of the building, the combustible furniture fueling its momentum. Flames and smoke belched into the humid Lowcountry night, creating what one witness described as 30-foot tornado of flames. Hot ash pelted hundreds of onlookers.

Capt. Ralph Linderman of the St. Andrews Fire Department said the blaze was the hottest he could recall in three decades of firefighting. "That fire bent steel like a wet noodle," he said.

Four employees were in the store when the fire started. Two firefighters freed one worker who was trapped in a repair workshop near the building's east side by cutting a hole in the side of the metal building.

Meanwhile, thick, black smoke was filling the showroom, leaving firefighters disoriented as they struggled to find their way through a jumble of sofas, beds and other furniture. "Everything just went bad at one time," Thomas said. "Trying to see with all that furniture in the store and trying to get out, it just didn't happen."

Charleston Fire Capt. Jake Jenkins said the firefighters were spread out in teams when the roof — a steel truss system — collapsed. Other crews fought to get inside the building and rescue the fallen, but the conditions were too bad, he said.

"They tried everything they could to find a door to open, find a window, find some way to get to downed firefighters," said Pete Rogers of the Charleston County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad. "They never stopped trying."

In the end, the news was beyond grim. It was enough to shake a city that has endured civil war, hurricanes and countless other tragedies in its storied history.

The charred bodies were scattered about the building in three groups of two firefighters and one group of three, Classen said. He was given the task of making sure they were removed with dignity. Their cause of death has not yet been determined.

"When you pull nine of your best friends out, it's hard," he said. "But you've got to be strong for the rest of them."

Firefighters and police formed two lines and saluted as the bodies, draped in American flags, were carried from the rubble.

"It was real somber out there when they brought the bodies out," said St. Andrews firefighter Tripp Mobley.

Thomas accompanied each of the nine bodies out of the building, and the Rev. Rob Dewey of the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy prayed over the fallen. Weary, dirty and grieving, firefighters cried, hugged and consoled one another as best they could.

Only three people were injured. Charleston County EMS director Don Lundy said ambulances took two firefighters to Medical University Hospital for minor injuries, one for lacerations and another for heat-related problems. A store employee also was treated for heat-related issues.

Firefighter David Fleming cut his hand while removing metal siding from the building and was taken to Medical University Hospital. He's scheduled for surgery today.

The tragedy drew people from throughout the region. Some came to offer condolences. Others took photographs or simply stared at the store's smoking remains, a twisted tangle of concrete and steel. They felt a need to be there, to show their presence, to show they cared.

One woman handed Mayor Joe Riley a sprig of freshly plucked crape myrtle flowers, telling him that she just had to do something to express her sorrow. A Methodist minister waited nearby, hoping to give the mayor a hug.

"It's just so horrendous, so unreal," Lorraine Tucker of West Ashley said as she snapped a photo of the wreckage. "They were someone's father, uncle, husband or brother. It just leaves me with a knot in my stomach."

About 8 a.m., a large wreath of red and yellow flowers was placed on a patch of grass in front of the store. The makeshift memorial grew by the hour as friends and strangers alike left flowers, balloons and signs at the site.

A group of firefighters pounded nine white crosses made from PVC pipe into the earth by the memorial. Someone else added small American flags. Another group hoisted a firefighter atop the sofa store's marquee.

There, he used duct tape to hang a larger version of the stars and stripes, covering block letters announcing a sale that would no longer take place.

Across town, Capt. Gary Taylor sat at a folding table behind the two trucks that carried six of his men to their deaths Monday evening. His fire station, on Ashley Hall Plantation Road, suffered the heaviest loss in the blaze. Taylor struggled to find words to describe his grief amid visits from colleagues, well-wishers and family members who came to empty lockers.

Jacob Forrest, 28, sat nearby on the front bumper of a fire truck. Forrest left his firefighter job with Company 16 a few months ago, thinking he might go back to school. Now he's thinking about returning to the job.

He knew his fallen comrades well. After such a loss, the impulse for Forrest is not to recoil from the danger but to embrace it once more, he said. "I haven't had to deal with this before," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "They were amazing guys."

The store was a former Piggly Wiggly grocery store. It opened as Sofa Super Store 16 years ago. The business also has showrooms in North Charleston and Mount Pleasant, but the West Ashley store was the flagship of the operation, with its sole warehouse, president Herb Goldstein said.

Goldstein had no cost estimate on the loss, and he said he will make a decision next week as to how his business will continue to operate. For now, he and his employees will grieve with the rest of he community.

"There are no words to express our sorrow," he said in a written statement. "All of us at Sofa Super Store are devastated and heartbroken by this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the heroic firefighters who lost their lives."

Thomas, chief for the last 20 years, pledged that his 227-person department would soldier on in the face of loss.

"We're going to stand tall now," he said. "Just like 9/11, we will never forget."

Staff Writers Prentiss Findlay, Tony Bartelme, Katy Stech, Jessica Johnson, Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.


Article list

"We're going to stand tall now, Just like 9/11, we will never forget." — Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas

Brad Baity

By Tony Bartelme

June 20, 2007

Brad Baity was an engineer at Station No. 16, a soft-spoken and smart man who sometimes impressed his buddies with his computer skills.

Baity, 37, had been with the department for nine years, driving Engine 19 for Capt. William "Billy" Hutchison.

"He was always seeking knowledge, trying to learn new things," said Derek Noffsinger, one of his colleagues at the station.

Sometimes, Baity could be found pecking on his laptop computer, doing virtual tours of faraway countries.

"He would talk about how he had just visited the historic sites in Greece and Rome," Noffsinger said.

Baity wasn't one to bend your ear. Amid the bustle and bravado of a typical fire station, he spoke in a soft voice. "In a day's time, Brad wouldn't say 10 words," Chief Rusty Thomas said fondly. But he was an aggressive firefighter. "It didn't make a difference to Brad Baity. Whatever the task was, he did it."

Like many firefighters, Baity had a second job.

For the last three years, he had worked as a stagehand at the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, the North Charleston Coliseum and other venues around the area, said Mike Coffey, a member of IATSE Local 333, a union that represents stagehands and technicians.

"Brad was new, but he was always watching and learning," said Coffey, a retired Charleston firefighter himself with more than three decades of service.

Sometimes, he and Baity and another firefighter/stagehand, James "Earl" Drayton, would get together and talk shop. "You get firemen together anywhere, and you're going to start telling stories," Coffey said. "That's the way firemen are."

Drayton also died in Monday's fire.

Baity lived in a quiet neighborhood off the bustle of S.C. Highway 61, where he leaves behind his wife, Heather, and 5-year-old son, Noah.

Mike Benke
By Prentiss Findlay

CORRECTION 6/21/07: Fallen Firefighters: A story on Page 6A of Wednesday's editions about Capt. Mike Benke, who died fighting the fire at Sofa Super Store, did not list all his surviving children. They include Holly Gildea, 30, of Charleston. Benke also has two grandchildren, she said. The Post and Courier regrets the error.

 

Capt. Mike Benke was known to his fellow firefighters at Station No. 16 as a family man and NASCAR fan. He enjoyed laughing but was serious about his job, Capt. Gary Taylor said.

"You're kind of numb about these kinds of things. You're at a loss for words. It's devastating," Taylor said.

Benke, 49, is survived by his wife, Kim, his daughter, Taylor, 14, and his son, Hunter, 10, Capt. Taylor said. They live in Springfield subdivision. Benke always took his son fishing, Taylor said.

Taylor, who also lives in Springfield, said he saw the Benkes often around the neighborhood. Benke was a soccer coach, and his kids were active in sports.

"He's a good fellow. Mike's good people. Good family man," Taylor said.

He said Benke, a Charleston native, was a happy person who was always laughing and cutting up. He never saw Benke angry about anything. "He would do anything for anybody," Taylor said.

Like many firefighters, Benke, a 29-year-veteran of the department, worked part time. He did inventory for Sears, Taylor said.

Engineer Derek Noffsinger recalled Benke as an ambitious, organized person who was a role model for him. Benke had a map book of city streets that included family and career photos. He rode with the book on calls. The inside of his locker was covered with family photos, Noffsinger said.

"He was a good guy, a great guy. All of them were," Noffsinger said.

Chief Rusty Thomas said Benke had relatives who were Charleston firefighters a generation ago. "He knew his job, never complained and was soft-spoken. He was a leader who gave off a quiet confidence. Everybody knew, he knew his job," Thomas said.

Sullivan's Island Town Manager Andy Benke, a first cousin to Benke, recalled him as a dedicated family man. "He was a devoted husband and father and took his responsibility to his family very seriously," Benke said.

Melvin Champaign
By Noah Haglund

Army veteran. Aspiring pastor. Tae Kwan Do black belt.

Melvin Champaign joined the Charleston Fire Department two years ago.

Before that, a varied career had taken the 46-year-old to the West Coast and back. He leaves behind a teenage daughter and two younger boys in Washington state.

Family from his native James Island spoke of him with glowing admiration.

"He was a man in a million," said his older sister, Gardenia Champaign-Moore. "You had to meet him to believe what this man is made out of."

Champaign worked out of Station No. 16 on Ashley Hall Plantation Road, as did five of the other nine firefighters who died Monday.

Colleagues recognized his fashion sense when he showed up for the first week of fire class wearing a leather hat with a feather in it, Chief Rusty Thomas said. They nicknamed him "Pimp Daddy."

They also noted a penchant for jokingly quoting Bible verse to get through a situation. He wanted to become a pastor. And he once told Thomas, "Chief, I just want to help people."

Relatives Mary and Mikell Fludd raised him on James Island. He went to Fort Johnson High School, where he wrestled and played baseball. Afterward, he joined the Army and resettled in Tacoma, Wash., near Fort Lewis.

He served in the infantry but hurt his back several years ago in an accident involving a military truck. He later worked as a welder.

As a firefighter, he was among the crews who responded to a fatal Dec. 22, 2005, blaze at the Indigo Creek Apartments that killed two young siblings and uprooted six families.

Assistant Engineer Sean Rivers, 30, also remembered lighter times at the fire station, full of card games and pranks.

Champaign continuously worked with youth. His nephew, Tony Moore, remembered him almost like an older bother.

"No matter what the circumstances were, he always had a smile," he said. "We thank him for making us all feel better."

James "Earl" Allen Drayton
By Ron Menchaca

James "Earl" Allen Drayton, 56, was the oldest of the nine firefighters killed Monday.

A 32-year veteran of the Charleston Fire Department, he was known by generations of city firefighters. They called him "old school" around Station No. 19 in West Ashley.

He is survived by his wife Kimberly, five children, three stepchildren and several grandchildren.

Kimberly Drayton said she last saw her husband Monday morning as he left for work from their Sangaree home near Summerville. The couple had planned to leave for a cruise to Puerto Rico this weekend. "He was all packed," she said. "He was so excited."

Drayton exuded a quiet confidence. His rhythmic walk and talk earned him the nickname "Cool Earl," said his older brother, Herbert Drayton. "I never really heard him raise his voice."

One of eight children, he was born on Charleston's West Side and his family moved to Amherst Street on the city's East Side when he was a child.

After graduating from C.A. Brown High School, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served eight years on active duty. He had a reputation for dressing to the nines and meticulously washing his black Chrysler. He was selected several times to drive Mayor Joe Riley in the city's Christmas Parade.

He was on his third retirement with the department, his wife said. "They kept asking him back. He was going to give it two more years."

Drayton also worked as a stagehand. He painted scenes and built sets for countless local performances. He also wore the battle scars of a seasoned firefighter. He was knocked unconscious by an electrical shock while battling a blaze in 1999. His family says he was once trapped in another fire.

Chief Rusty Thomas worked alongside Drayton as the two were coming up through the ranks in the 1970s. Thomas recalled a call that got a rise out of the low-key Drayton. A hot-water heater had caught fire in a house downtown, and as they headed toward the fire, Drayton got excited and blurted, "Rusty, get this going. That's my house."

Michael "Frenchie" French
By Robert Behre

Michael "Frenchie" French was among the youngest firefighters who lost their lives Monday night, but whatever he lacked in experience, he more than made up for in enthusiasm for the job.

French, 27, of Eadyville began volunteering with the Pine Ridge Rural Fire Department outside Summerville and developed a reputation as someone who always could be relied upon to show up when the department's alarm tones sounded.

He previously worked for the St. Andrews Fire Department, but he wanted to jump to the city.

Charleston firefighter Tim Black got to know French well in January 2006, when the two trained together for a city job. Black said his friend talked a lot about his 5-year-old daughter. As for his other interests, Black said, "He always liked to go out boating and just hanging with the guys."

In his short time with the city, French rose to the position of assistant engineer — a relatively quick move. Engineer Derek Noffsinger of Station No. 16 said French was a quiet sort who only opened up after you got to know him. "He was ready to go places in the fire department," Noffsinger said of French. "He took his job seriously."

Black said French was the kind of person willing to fill in on a shift at the last minute.

Jonathan Ryan, a Pine Ridge volunteer and Mount Pleasant firefighter, said French had two passions: "He loved the fire department and he loved his daughter," he said, adding that French recently moved in with his cousin to spend more time with her.

Chief Rusty Thomas said the day French passed his rookie training, "it was the best day of Mikey French's entire life."

Black agreed, saying they worked together to help get through the physical agility and stress test — the most challenging part of that training.

"He was a real go-getter," Black said. "He wouldn't let you quit. He wouldn't let you slow down. He wouldn't let you give up."

William "Billy" Hutchinson
By Edward C. Fennell

To friends, Fire Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson was a good-natured man and a sports enthusiast who at age 48 still loved to play golf and shoot hoops.

But to fellow firefighters, he was the go-to guy for haircuts. At $2 a pop, it was a skill carried over from his second job at Williams Barber Shop in Goose Creek.

"He was an all-around, super-nice guy, and a super firefighter," Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin said.

Hutchinson worked out of fire stations in downtown and West Ashley, most recently at Station No. 19 on Ashley Hall Plantation Road.

"He never had a harsh word to say about anybody, and you couldn't argue with the guy because he'd agree with you. He was a (practical) joker, like most firefighters tend to be," Garvin said.

"His nickname was 'Lightning,' because he didn't move fast unless there was a fire. We gave him that nickname when he first came on the job here," Garvin said.

Hutchinson played football and baseball for Middleton High School in the mid-1970s, and basketball for the church league and fire department teams.

"We were good," insists Hutchinson's brother, Randy Hutchinson, a former firefighter himself, who played on sports teams with Billy.

Randy last saw his brother a few weekends ago, when they went jet-skiing.

He said Billy was married to Phyllis Hutchinson and had three children, including twin daughters. He had been with the Charleston Fire Department for 30 years.

Garvin said he and Hutchinson passed each other in the doorway of the Sofa Super Store on Monday shortly before the roof collapsed, killing Hutchinson and eight other firefighters.

"Billy passed by me when he was going in and I was coming out," said Garvin, who had already made three trips into the building.

"He asked me, 'Where is it chief,' and I told him 'all the way to the end and to the right'."

That was the last time Garvin saw him.

Mark Kelsey
By Bo Petersen

Mark Kelsey had a loud voice described as the hardest thing in the Ashley River Fire Department station.

He was a gruff retired Navy veteran who told it like it is. He'd come into the station, set his walkie-talkie into the community room charger and ask who hadn't made his pot of coffee. And the coffee better be made with one large scoop, no more.

"He was a very aggressive person, kept you straight," said Ashley River Capt. Wayne Sammons.It was a gruff front of a kind man who took rookies under his wing and drilled them until they had it down.

He left the firefighters at Ashley River with their voices choking as they talked about him.

Kelsey, 40, was an engineer and a 12 1/2-year veteran with the city of Charleston Fire Department. Monday night, he was acting captain as the trucks drove to the Sofa Super Store blaze just down Savannah Highway from their Station No. 10.

He was a captain working part time with the Ashley River Fire District, joining 15 1/2 years ago when the Charleston Naval Base closed. Born in Indiana, he had come to Charleston with the Navy and never left.

He had a teenage son. His passion was his custom motorcycle. He rode the chopper rain or shine. Short and stocky, he kept his blond hair cut short and didn't like to dress up in suit and tie for the station Christmas party. He lived to fight fires.

"If there was a fire, he was there. He always wanted to be the first one in," Sammons said.

Kelsey refused an office in the Ashley River station, pointed to the housekeeping supply closet where he kept inventory and said that was his office. "He said an office closes him up, and he didn't want to be closed up," Sammons said.

On Tuesday, an Ashley River firefighter took Kelsey's son to the Savannah Highway station. The son wanted to see where his dad worked.

And at the Ashley River station, Fire Marshal Joe Friend stood in the community room staring at the coffee pot. "I was waiting for that 'pot of coffee.' I was waiting for him to come in," Friend said. "I can't tell you how I'm going to miss him."

Louis Mulkey
By Jessica Johnson

When Capt. Louis Mulkey wasn't on duty at Coming Street Station 15, he often was coaching athletes at Summerville High School.

Mulkey, 34, lived and breathed Green Wave sports, and firefighters openly joked that the 1991 Summerville graduate should quit fighting fires and succeed football coach John McKissick, said Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.

Mulkey was a coach for the school's junior varsity football and basketball teams.

McKissick said Mulkey would do anything for students. He always checked athletes' report cards and often accompanied students on recruiting trips.

"We lost a good guy, a good friend, a good citizen and a good all-around guy," McKissick said.

On Tuesday, Summerville athletes and fellow firefighters surrounded the home of Mulkey's parents, Ann and Mike Mulkey.

Capt. Jake Jenkins of Station No. 15 said Mulkey was known for his competitiveness. He wanted to win, but he always looked out for his team.

"He was the bravest of the bravest," Jenkins said.

Mulkey's mother phoned her son just before he was called to the fire scene Monday. As news came out about the fire, she saw him on television.

"Well, he's fine," she said to herself.

And that's what she told people who called asking about her son, until an emergency-services chaplain called her to Station 11 in West Ashley.

Mulkey had 11 1/2 years of firefighting experience and once saved a police officer who had collapsed in the line of duty.

Mulkey leaves behind his mother and father; his wife, Lauren, of West Ashley, and a brother, Wayne, of Florida.

Mulkey's body was among the last recovered Tuesday.

"We never dreamed he would be a firefighter. One day he just took the job. He loves it," Ann Mulkey said, holding a tissue to her eyes. "That was his love."

Brandon Thompson
By Nita Birmingham

Brandon Thompson, 27, had been a volunteer at the Pine Ridge Rural Fire Department since he was a teenager but had recently told the guys they probably wouldn't see him around the station as much because he was preparing for a fall wedding.

Thompson and Rachel Sheridan were to be married Oct. 7 on Folly Beach. They'd already sent out "save the date" cards. Thompson's chief at Pine Ridge, Ben Waring, was to be the best man.

Thompson had been a Charleston firefighter for four years. He had started his career in the fire service at the age of 14. "He had an older brother that was in it and he just kinda tagged along. That's what he decided to do with his career," Waring said.

Thompson was too young to fight fires, but he could go along with the Pine Ridge crews to watch and learn, roll hoses and fetch tools.

He loved firefighting so much that he was known to cut class in high school and go see the action, Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said.

Thompson worked for the Summerville Fire Department before he joined Charleston, Thomas said. He broke his leg while off-duty last year, so Thomas gave him a job working in the mechanic shop and testing hydrants.

Thompson, also a captain with Pine Ridge, usually stopped by the Myers Road station in Summerville two or three times a week, Waring said.

The two spoke by phone Monday morning, mostly about how Thompson needed some time off for his wedding preparations. Thompson was already on his shift at Station No. 10 off Savannah Highway, known to firefighters as the Five and Dime because it's the home of Ladder 5 and Engine 10.

Full-time Mount Pleasant firefighter and Pine Ridge volunteer Jonathan Ryan said Thompson was an aggressive firefighter who would have seen Monday night's fire as "just another day on the job. He had the skin of an alligator. He wasn't scared of anything."


Article list

Rescued from the flames: Sofa store employee saved at last minute after being trapped

By Katy Stech

June 20, 2007

Jonathan Tyrrell III clenched the hammer the whole time.

With it, he banged on tables, metal walls — anything he could find, hoping the noise would signal rescue firefighters where he was trapped in the expansive warehouse building.

A thick cloud of black smoke forced him onto his stomach. That hammer and his cell phone were his only lifelines to the world outside. He would be the last employee rescued from the Sofa Super Store before its collapse took the lives of nine firefighters.

His shift started out like any other. But as the Johns Island resident concentrated on his repairs, he caught a whiff of something burning.

From behind a partially open warehouse door, small flakes of charred ash drifted into his workshop.

Tyrrell, a 28-year-old of medium build, dropped his equipment and threw his weight against the door, fighting the pressure of a raging fire on the other side.

"I barely got it closed," he said.

Through another door, he saw that his second escape route — a utility door that leads to the warehouse — also was engulfed in flames.

He was trapped.

Tyrrell turned to his cell phone, which hardly gets reception in the living-room-size workshop on normal days. Now, he needed it to connect him with rescuers outside.

"Even with the light from the cell phone," he said, "all I could see was smoke."

Finally, his call to 911 went through, and a dispatcher transferred him to a firefighter who was on the scene outside.

"He said, 'OK, buddy, I'm coming in to get you,' and the reception cut off," Tyrrell said.

Then he gripped his hammer and started banging.

Emergency workers on the outside heard him. Some say the clanking noises saved his life.

Five minutes and an eternity passed as Tyrrell lay on the workshop floor.

On the other side, firefighters used their axes to rip through the structure's metal siding. Through the hole, Tyrrell saw the silhouette of a firefighter, who found him covered in soot.

"When we got (the hole) big enough to get him out, we got him out," Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin said. "Another two minutes and he would have been dead."

After squeezing through the tiny opening, Tyrrell wrapped his arms around the firefighters' shoulders, and they carried him to safety and an ambulance.

Emergency officials drove him to Medical University Hospital later that night where doctors told him he had breathed a large amount of hot air.

"My throat was burning real bad, like I got a bad sunburn," he said.

Now, Tyrrell has a request: He wants to find one of the firefighters who helped pull him to safety. The medium-size man has reddish patches of hair and a large tattoo on his arm.

Amid the chaos, Tyrrell didn't have time to catch the firefighter's name.

"I was just trying to catch my breath."

Nadine Parks contributed to this story.

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