Firefighters' deaths lead South Carolina's list of top stories

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COLUMBIA --- Nine firefighters perished in the chaos of a furniture store inferno. Another blaze claimed the lives of seven college students. Hundreds of families watched relatives head to Afghanistan for National Guard service. Investors saw thousands of dollars vanish, and an up-and-coming political star had his career ruined by drugs.

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A firefighter kneels after helping put out the fire that killed nine firefighters in June at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, S.C. Four months later, a fire at a North Carolina beach house would claim the lives of six USC students and one from Clemson University.  Associated Press
Associated Press
A firefighter kneels after helping put out the fire that killed nine firefighters in June at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, S.C. Four months later, a fire at a North Carolina beach house would claim the lives of six USC students and one from Clemson University.

In ways both big and small, and public and private, a sense of loss seems to be the common thread through the state's top news stories that were selected by Associated Press members.

The June 18 Sofa Super Store fire started with wisps of smoke leaking through the ceiling tiles of the Charleston store, but it quickly turned from routine to wrenching as firefighters realized some wouldn't get out alive.

On their radios, they heard the men shout "Mayday!" and pray. One, in a garbled transmission that some believe was a final message to be passed to his wife, murmured "I love you."

"I lost nine of my best friends," Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said a day after the tragedy, the nation's single worst loss of firefighters since the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Several days later, he would rivet thousands at a massive memorial service with stories about each man. Tough questions are still being asked about the cause of the fire and whether the department was truly prepared for it.

Four months later, another fire ripped through a house at Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., killing seven teens spending a weekend at the beach before the cold weather hit. Six University of South Carolina students and one from Clemson University died. Thousands on the two campuses mourned as a collective state of grief wrapped itself around South Carolina.

"We find we have an ache in our hearts that just won't leave," Dennis Pruitt, USC's vice president for student affairs, said during a memorial. "But we must carry on. Folding our losses into our own lives, we must each return our focus to living."

Not all the losses touched entire communities. Some, such as the downfall of former state Treasurer Thomas Ravenel, were deeply personal.

Prosecutors accused Mr. Ravenel of buying a small amount of cocaine to share with friends. The multimillionaire developer and son of a former congressman had been encouraged by supporters just months before to run against Sen. Lindsey Graham in the 2008 Republican primary.

By year's end, Mr. Ravenel had resigned, pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute and was awaiting sentencing.

Meanwhile, families across the state are entering a ninth month missing loved ones. About 1,800 state National Guardsmen deployed to Afghanistan in April to help train members of the Afghan army and police. In October, Staff Sgt. James David Bullard, 28, and Sgt. Edward Philpot, 38, died within weeks of each other.

In Greenville and Abbeville, some grieving families gained a measure of closure through criminal trials. A federal jury sentenced Eric Preston Hans to life in prison for a fire that killed six people in a Greenville hotel four years ago. In Abbeville, a jury sentenced Steven Bixby to death for killing two law officers over a land dispute four years ago.

In rural Ware Shoals, police said cheerleading coach Jill Moore supplied alcohol to students and took two cheerleaders with her when she met a National Guardsman for sex. Authorities say Principal Jane Blackwell told the cheerleaders not to talk to police about the case. Both women resigned and are awaiting trial.

At times this past year, losses were easier to measure, like the $90 million economist Al Parish is accused of bilking from 500 investors. He pleaded guilty in October to two federal counts of fraud and one of lying to investigators and faces sentencing in early 2008.


The top 10 South Carolina stories of 2007 as voted on by South Carolina members of The Associated Press:

1. Charleston furniture store fire kills nine firefighters

2. State treasurer resigns

3. Beach house fire kills seven

4. Presidential candidates descend on state

5. South Carolina National Guardsmen ship out

6. Man is convicted in Greenville hotel fire

7. Coach charged

8. Economist pleads guilty to federal fraud charges

9. Ultrasound proposal

10. Land dispute leads to death sentence


2006: Sanford re-elected. Republican Gov. Mark Sanford is re-elected to a second term.

2005: Train wrecks. January train wreck in Graniteville releases toxic cloud of chlorine gas, killing nine and injuring at least 200.

2004: Hollings retires. The career of 82-year-old Democratic Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings spanned more than half a century.

2003: Secrets revealed. Strom Thurmond's death was easily the top story, but what surprised many was the end-of-the-year revelation that, at 22, he fathered an illegitimate daughter.

2002: GOP to power. November elections give the governor's mansion and two more statewide offices to the Republicans.

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