By Cal Gaunt
It was a day that felt like any other mundane Monday. Dewy-eyed folk trudged laboriously into office blocks cradling takeout coffee cups. The sun poked through a spring-like smattering of cloud against the backdrop of a swallow’s soprano. Paper boys on bikes threw the stories of yesterday onto the lawns of oblivious residents. They could never have known that tomorrow’s lead would give way to their city’s darkest day.
18 June 2007. Charleston, S.C.
As the sultry summer sky turned orange, Ann pulled her Dodge van over onto the highway shoulder. Her son Louis — a captain with the Charleston Fire Department — was plotting yet another textbook prank to play on an unsuspecting colleague, when he was startled by his own ringtone.
“Hey,” said Ann. “Are you coming home tonight or are you headed to the school first?”
“I’m coming home, Mom,” Louis replied. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Ann toyed with calling him back, unsettled that they hadn’t exchanged their customary ‘I love you’ at the culmination of the call.
It’s silly to call back for that.
Ann and Michael Mulkey seldom saw their beloved son. Between his shifts with the fire service and coaching sports at Summerville High School, Louis had little time for much else. He sat down for what felt like the first time that day whilst talking to his mother.
That brief moment of tranquillity was fleeting. Details of a discarded cigarette engulfing a nearby Sofa Super Store had filtered through to the company. As ever, Louis cut a stirred mixture of angst and anticipation. He loved being a fireman. No two days were the same.
Mulkey and his Engine 15 comrades received updates from Chief Rusty Thomas throughout the short journey to Savanna Highway. The intricacies of what might have been a routine job became bleaker with each passing second.
On arrival, the crew were confronted by a blaze cascading through the showroom. An Incident Commander, already on the inside, opened a door at the back of the store. The exit led to a loading dock, where a fire raged at the hands of a half-smoked coffin-nail. The sheer force of the flames pulled the door from his grasp and an inrush of oxygen made it nigh-on impossible to close.
Crews were fighting what looked to be a lost battle. Uneasy members of the public watched on from a distance through the gaps between their fingers. A news crew helicopter hovered above, broadcasting the distressing exterior scenes to thousands of living rooms across the state of South Carolina. This wasn’t any old fire, and that was clear to everyone.
Mulkey, along with his crew, were trapped and running out of breathable air. Cornered by thick, toxic smoke, visibility had ceased. Some started sending emotional messages over comms, in the hope of having them passed onto the wives, girlfriends, parents and kids they knew they’d never meet again. The severity of the situation on the inside had become gut-wrenchingly clear to those on the out.
Crews smashed the large glass panes at the store’s front in the hope of creating an escape route, but to no avail. It was too late to withdraw. Too late to help.
Nine Charleston Fire Department firefighters perished. The greatest loss of firefighters the United States of America had seen since 343 were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001.
Captain Mulkey was among the deceased, just 34-years-old.
“I’ve spent the best part of my career trying to emulate Louis. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another person in my life who was as good a person as he was,” said Mark Davis, with a tightness in his throat, as though the fumes from that night clog his words to this day.
Davis was a great personal friend of Mulkey’s — and was one of several survived servicemen tasked with finding his body in the fire’s aftermath — a discovery he remembers as ‘simply horrifying.’
Summerville Green Wave’s Varsity Basketball team headed into the 2007-08 season on the back of State Championship defeat. In the locker room after that defeat to Fort Mill, Coach Mulkey had taken centre stage.
“We’ll be back,” he said. “Next year is our year.”
Five years prior, addressing the nervous, pubescent teenage boys that sat before him on the court, Louis gathered the current seniors.
“By the time you guys reach this level, by the time you’re seniors, I know you’ll be State Champions. I guarantee it.”
This was a last chance to make that prediction reality.
Conversations between players took place with regards to whether or not they wanted to play at all in Mulkey’s absence. The verdict was that they would, and that everything they did would be for him. Blood. Sweat. Tears. All in the name of Coach Mulkey.
Prior to the season’s tip-off, the team were presented with what would become an iconic mascot. A black firefighter’s helmet, decorated by a plaque in the green and gold of Summerville High, courtesy of Mulkey’s old Station 11 colleagues.
COACH MULKEY — 15 — SUMMERVILLE adorned the front. Wherever the team went, so did Mulkey’s spirit. The seat in which their fallen hero would sit for games, fourth in line from the left, sat the helmet. When they looked to the bench in difficult moments, they felt love, warmth and belief. That was Coach Mulkey.
Summerville had never won a basketball State Championship. The idea that they could, considering the effect Mulkey’s death had had on them, was in some quarters deemed absurd. Yet, their season was nothing short of a fairytale.
They suffered their first defeat to Fort Dorchester — their arch-rivals — in the final game of the regular season. Harrison Thompson recalls the loss as a turning point.
“We were confident, so much so that we thought we could just roll the ball out and win,” he said.
“Our head coach, Tee Newman, was so mad that we were heading into the playoffs on a bad note.”
Newman gave the team three days off ahead of the playoffs, before beasting them in the gym. They’d never experienced practice like it.
Remember who we’re doing this for.
Green Wave faced Sumter in the semi-finals. Trailing deep into the latter stages of the fourth, the crowd started chanting.
It was the push the boys craved. Soon after the chanting began, they seized the lead… and kept it. The victory sealed Summerville’s ticket to the 4A State Championship for the second season running. Only a well-oiled Spartanburg machine stood between them and an elusive yet predicted title.
Win the game for Louis.
29 February 2008. Columbia, S.C.
From the very first tip, the match was as tight as a basketball game gets. Neither side were able to establish an advantage until, in the last minute of the game, Bruce Haynes gave Green Wave the lead.
The clock stopped at 1.7 seconds as Haynes was fouled, his team up by two. He had one free throw to seal it. Timeout.
“I’ve never told anybody this before but, preparing to take that shot, all I could smell was fire smoke. Strong, fire smoke. He was there with us,” said Haynes.
He steadied himself at the line, calmed his breathing… and threw. A pin drop would have been audible. The ball bounced off the backboard, and into the hands of Spartanburg’s Zycorrian Robinson.
From 65ft, Robinson set a final roll of the dice in motion. The ripple of ball and net coincided like poetry in motion.
“It’s good! It’s good! Spartanburg has won the ball game!”
In one shot, everything Green Wave had gone through, played, and prayed for, was lost.
Spartanburg 51 Summerville 50.
Amongst the madness, some of the Summerville contingent noticed a congregation of officials debating ferociously towards the back of the court. They dispersed. A strong blow on the whistle turned every pair of eyes in the arena onto the referee. He strode into the middle of the court and signalled that Robinson’s last-gasp three-pointer had not beaten the buzzer.
Elation. The boys set off running in whichever direction their legs would take them. They consoled each other, tearful heaps on the ground.
That’s for you, Coach.
It was the ending Mulkey had predicted. Ann and Michael Mulkey - watching on just metres behind their late son’s helmet - hugged and sobbed into the embrace of anyone who came to congratulate them. A State Championship medal was draped around the mascots base and joined the emotional players in the centre of the court.
The boys had just one thing left to do. On the bus home, a vital detour was in order. The team decided that the only place they wished to go were the grounds of Summerville Cemetery. The resting place of their beloved coach. They held hands and shared in a long prayer. Players took the medals from around their necks and placed them on his name.
‘The win was Mulkey’s’.