South Mississippi Ready To Send Relief To Charleston

When south Mississippi was tired and weak after Katrina, Charleston, South Carolina's mayor came down here and offered his city's assistance. On Tuesday, with Charleston reeling from a horrific furniture store fire that killed nine firemen, both Biloxi and Gulfport put plans in place to aid their grieving east coast friends.

In the days right after Katrina, rescue teams rushed to south Mississippi. Some of the groups searched for survivors. Other teams brought life saving equipment.

"We can't say enough about all the help that we got," Gulfport fire chief Pat Sullivan said. "And it's time to pay back."

At Gulfport's Central Fire Station, paying back Charleston, South Carolina means packing bags and sending as many firefighters to that historic town as its needs while its fire department mourns the loss of nine brothers.

"We know that if it would have happened to us, they would have been here for us," the chief thought.

One of the Gulfport battalion chiefs on duty Tuesday was Dean Morrow. He called the fallen firemen in Charleston heroes.

"They risk their lives daily," said Morrow. "And to know that nine of them perished at one time is just heartbreaking to all of us."

Charleston's mayor is Joe Riley.  In a Tuesday morning news conference detailing the tragic furniture warehouse fire, he said, "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.  To all of their loved ones, our heart goes out to them."

Morrow didn't know the specifics about how the Charleston fire started. And he didn't want to speculate about what could have happened to trap so many firefighters. But he said if it was anything like a training exercise Gulfport held in a vacant warehouse a couple of years ago, he could understand how they got confused inside the burning furniture store.

"It's the unknown that gets you in trouble," Morrow remembered.

Gulfport faced its own potential calamity on January 30, when the Furniture Ranch warehouse on Pass Road started burning.

"This fire could have been a bad situation," deputy fire marshal Joe Ing said.

Ing has a computer file filled with pictures from that mid-afternoon fire. Unlike the Charleston scene, the Furniture Ranch fire was extinguished before it spread too faar.

"It could have been a hazard for firefighters being in there, because they couldn't actually see when they got in there," he said.

Chief Morrow wasn't at that fire. But in the warehouse training he was part of, he saw how confusing and how treacherous that sort of fire can be.

"Even though all the training we do in residential fires, we noticed that we were killing, fictitiously of course, in our training efforts we were killing a lot of the firemen, because they are so much different than fighting fires in a regular house," he said.

Gulfport has no plans for another warehouse training exercise. But on Thursday, the department will burn a house on Old Highway 49, so firefighters can do some live rescue training.

Chief Sullivan said he was waiting for a phone call to find out how many of his officers may be needed "to cover their fire stations, cover their trucks" while the Charleston community mourns.