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Firefighters honor, remember their fallen brothers

A touching tribute was erected Wednesday in front of Bemidji Fire Hall in honor of the nine firefighters who died battling a blaze Monday in South Carolina.

The men who died were fighting a fire at a furniture store warehouse, according to the Associated Press. The AP identified the firefighters as William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48, Mike Benke, 49, Louis Mulkey, 34, Mark Kelsey, 40, Bradford "Brad" Baity, 37, Michael French, 27, James "Earl" Drayton, 56, Brandon Thompson, 27, and Melven Champaign, 46.

It was the largest loss of firefighters' lives since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed 340, according to the AP.

The Bemidji Fire Department decided to honor those who died by placing nine white crosses in the front lawn at the fire station on Fifth Street Northwest.

Firefighters often consider one another family, said Trent Eineichner, a Bemidji firefighter, but it can include many, many others.

"We're a tight-knit group at our own station," he said. "But we're still all brothers and sisters.

"We're all brothers and sisters in the firefighters' union."

Coincidentally, a cement statue of a firefighter that was donated by Country Greenhouse arrived at the Fire Hall the same day.

Dwayne Totzauer is the owner of Country Greenhouse along with his wife, Emi. He said the statue was donated along with several others that were given to community service groups. Different statues went to the hospital, armory and fairgrounds, he said.

"We just wanted to give back to the community in honor of those who have given a lot in terms of service, particularly the fire department," Totzauer said. "We wanted to do something special."

The Bemidji Fire Department employs one full-time chief, seven full-time staff members and about 40 volunteers, Eineichner said.

He watched Wednesday as the crosses were placed in the ground in a semi-circle at the Fire Hall, just a few feet in front of the new firefighter statue.

Eineichner, who has been with the Bemidji Fire Department about 18 months, said tragedies like the one that occurred on Monday serve as a reminder of the danger facing him and his comrades daily.

"You're always aware of it," he said. "It's part of the job."