NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Fire Captain Ken Dammand stood sharply in his dress uniform, his eyes reddening, as the families of nine dead firefighters filed past him and into a packed coliseum for their memorial service yesterday.
"These people are dealing with a mountain of grief," said Dammand, who worked his shift in Everett, Wash., and went 40 hours without sleep to make it to South Carolina for the ceremony. "If we can take on some of that, that's why we're here."
Dammand and a colleague from his city north of Seattle were among thousands of firefighters who traveled from across the country to mourn the Charleston firefighters killed in a furniture store blaze Monday night. It was the worst single loss of US firefighters' lives since the Sept. 11 attacks.
They traveled to a region that normally draws out-of-towners to its beaches and historic landmarks, but where city offices were closed yesterday as piles of flowers and cards and remembrances of the men have grown over the past four days.
Some came in firetrucks that took part in a procession that wound its way past hundreds of onlookers, past the rubble of the Sofa Super Store and past the dead men's firehouses before arriving at the coliseum.
Dammand and Everett firefighter Tim Hogan came by plane, working a 24-hour shift back home before leaving, and waiting out a six-hour layover in Atlanta before getting to Charleston on Thursday.
They stood shoulder to shoulder with comrades from Virginia Beach, Va., Saginaw, Texas, and Peoria, Ill. It was a trip they said they felt compelled to make to share the painful collective grief.
"It makes it a little hard, every one we do," Hogan said. "But the families deserve this. The fallen are fallen, they're looking down on us smiling right now. Their families . . . we're here for them."
The Washington firefighters didn't care that they couldn't get in to the coliseum. It was filled to its 9,000-seat capacity, so they joined several hundred others who watched the service on screens in a nearby convention center and outside the arena.
Inside, a row of nine coffins sat before a row of nine large photos of the fallen firefighters: Captain William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48; Captain Mike Benke, 49; Captain Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford "Brad" Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; James "Earl" Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melvin Champaign, 46.
The ceremony started with somber classical music and bagpipers who led family members, each wearing a red carnation and preceded by an officer carrying a fire helmet bearing the number of each man's firehouse.
The mayor called the men heroes. The governor wondered aloud whether questions about a higher purpose for the deaths would ever be answered.
"Who we are crucially depends on what we're willing to stand up for in life. In short, are we willing to walk the walk?" said Governor Mark Sanford. "They walked their walk right into the company of angels and to heaven's gate."
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas changed the tone, drawing laughter and applause with anecdotes about the firefighters. He imitated Mulkey's voice when talking about a phone call they had. He reached into his pocket as if to jingle coins when he spoke of one man's habit of doing the same.
Kelsey, he recalled, had the energy of the "Energizer Bunny." Hutchinson was nicknamed "Lightning."
"It's not because he moved so fast," said Thomas, whose father served in the department. "My dad said, 'Lightning would have to strike around him, to get him to move.' "
He recalled a 3 a.m. fire call he went on with Drayton when the two worked together in 1977. "He's hollering, 'Rusty, get this thing going!' " the chief said as the crowd burst into laughter. " 'That's my house!' "
Thomas challenged the 237 remaining members of his department to always remember their fallen colleagues. All were able to attend because firefighters from other communities were at their posts.
"Monday, June the 18th, is a day that our city will never forget, never," Thomas said. "We lost nine of the bravest men doing what they loved to do best, fighting fire."
Later, after prayer and songs, a fire bell was struck in three sets of five rings, a signal that a firefighter had died while on duty.
Federal investigators have not confirmed where the blaze broke out, but recordings of some 911 calls released Thursday bolster the assertion several city fire officials have made that it probably started at the back of the store in a covered space between the showroom and a warehouse crammed with furniture.
A store employee told the Associated Press that workers frequently smoked cigarettes in that area and were strongly cautioned to carefully throw them away. Federal investigators have not discussed possible causes of the fire.
Investigators planned to give an update today at the site of the blaze.