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Short profiles of the 9 fallen Charleston firefighters

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- To many of his fellow firefighters, Capt. Billy Hutchinson was more than just a veteran fire captain with three decades of service under his belt - he was also their barber.

When he wasn't on duty or playing golf, Hutchinson, 48, worked a side job trimming hair at a barber shop in the Charleston area, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said. He would even set up a chair at the fire station to give haircuts to co-workers dropping by during their shifts.

Hutchinson was known for working at a slow, deliberate pace that earned him the nickname "Lightning." But Thomas said Hutchinson tackled his assignments head-on, from making sure his firefighters were trained to raising money for children's charities.

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Despite his soft-spoken demeanor, Capt. Mike Benke had a quiet confidence and leadership abilities that were never questioned by Charleston firefighters.

With nearly three decades at the department, Benke, 49, would fill in for battalion chiefs when they took vacation. And firefighters trusted in his experience when Benke gave orders, Thomas said.

"When he spoke, they did what he said," Thomas said. "Everybody knew that he knew his job."

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Capt. Louis Mulkey always found somebody to cover his shifts on Friday nights during football season so he could attend the games at his alma matter, Summerville High School. The 34-year-old Mulkey, a 1991 Summverville High graduate, had played defensive back and quarterback at the school, said Capt. Richard Waring, a friend since middle school. When he wasn't on duty, Mulkey volunteered as a coaching assistant for the high school's basketball and football teams.

Kelly Lax, Mulkey's cousin, said many students he had coached came to his home Tuesday to see his wife, Lauren, after hearing Mulkey was among the firefighters killed.

"They gave grief a new face," Lax said. "They were very much a part of this family."

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During his time off from fighting fires in Charleston, Engineer Mark Kelsey worked about 20 miles up the road doing the same job for the Ashley River Fire Department.

Kelsey, 40, loved firefighting so much, and was so aggressive at it "he was almost too good a firefighter to be in our department," Thomas said of the man who worked for the Charleston department for more than 12 years.

His attitude was a bit more laid-back when it came to routine chores around the fire station, such as mopping the floor, Thomas said. But when a call came in, Kelsey always moved at full-throttle - befitting a man who made his living driving fire trucks with sirens blaring.

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Some firefighters might get excited, even flustered, rushing to a fire or other emergency - but not Engineer Brad Baity, who worked for the department for nine years.

Baity, a 37-year-old fire truck driver, always exuded a quiet calm under the most stressful conditions, said Thomas.

"In a day's time, I bet Brad wouldn't say 10 words," Thomas said. "When it's all smoldering, some people might raise their voices. But not Brad."

Off duty, Baity worked part-time at a quieter job, as a house painter.

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It took Assistant Engineer Michael French only about a year at the Charleston Fire Department to be promoted to assistant engineer - meaning he sometimes got to drive fire trucks, a job most firefighters wait two or three years to get.

Thomas said French, 27, had come highly recommended by his supervisors at the neighboring St. Andrews Fire Department, where he had worked about two years. He had worked in Charleston for about 18 months.

"I don't know if he didn't get enough fires or excitement there," Thomas said. "He didn't care about the money."

Thomas remembered seeing French surrounded by family after he graduated from the Charleston department's two-week recruiting class. The chief called it "the best day of Mikey French's entire life."

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Earl Drayton's nickname around the fire station was "Squirrel," for no reason other than it rhymed with his name.

Drayton, a 32-year veteran was the most experienced of the nine firefighters killed, but never sought promotion above being a rank-and-file firefighter - a job he loved, said Thomas. Drayton, 56, was also inseparable from Hutchinson and Baity. All three men worked on the same truck.

Drayton was an outgoing man who had a habit of jangling loose change in his pocket when he talked.

Thomas, who worked shifts with Drayton before becoming chief, laughed while recalling one night when they were watching TV at the station until the dispatcher called them about a fire. Drayton heard the address and shot out of his seat and ran to the truck.

"He said, 'Rusty, get this thing going! That's my house!'" Thomas recalled with a chuckle.

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Firefighter Brandon Thompson hobbled into work on crutches last year, having broken his leg while helping a friend cut down a tree. He didn't have much sick time to take off, and wanted to keep working.

So Thompson, 27, spent the next three months working with the fire department's mechanics. He would go out to check the water pressure on fire hydrants and fetch oil, gasoline and other things the mechanics needed.

The chief said Thompson's father came with him to the station the day his son hobbled in on his broken leg because he was so concerned for his job.

On Monday, after learning the four-year veteran was inside the burning furniture store when it collapsed, Thompson's father went to the scene of the fire. Thomas said he refused to leave until he saw for himself that his son's body had been recovered and carried out.

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Charleston firefighters called Firefighter Melvin Champaign "Pimp Daddy" for his flashy wardrobe of silk shirts, leather caps and shiny new sneakers, but Champaign was more than a smooth dresser.

The 46-year-old often quoted Bible verses in conversation. And though he was past 40 when he joined the Charleston Fire Department two years ago, his motives were as altruistic as a young man half his age, Thomas said.

"He told me, 'Chief, I just want to help people,'" Thomas said. "I never asked him about his age. I didn't even know how old he was."

Champaign spent eight years in the Army and was a welder before he decided his purpose was to save lives, said his older sister, Gardenia Moore.

Champaign played the drums and organ in church and enjoyed cookouts with children in the neighborhood before moving out of Moore's home so he could live closer to the fire station.

When Moore heard about firefighters missing in the blaze, she immediately called her brother's cell phone. No one answered. She kept calling until 3 a.m.

"Then I thought, I've got to stop calling," Moore said. "He's gone."

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