Every year, Vernon ‘Sned’ Drayton attends the memorial service honoring his older brother James ‘Earl’ Drayton, one of nine Charleston firefighters who died June 18, 2007 in what has become known as the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire. This year was the ninth anniversary of his brother’s death.
“I still miss my brother,” said Drayton, who followed his older sibling through public schools on Charleston’s Eastside. Earl, as he was called although his given name was James, attended Columbus Street Elementary School and graduated C.A. Brown High in 1971. A quiet individual of few words, Earl Drayton usually preferred to remain in the background. Those aspects of his character were reflected in his service in the fire department.
Drayton surprised many of his peers when he joined the fire department. He never sought distinction. He was an average student who didn’t engage in extracurricular activities, but he was well known and well liked – a capable guy who lived his life without fanfare. Drayton’s 32 years in the fire service similarly was marked not with exclamation points, but with periods of accomplishment.
Drayton didn’t seek rise in rank in the fire department, but his peers in the fire service knew he was capable and that they always could count on him.
Drayton was comfortable with the rank of firefighter. And he was satisfied doing the job he chose.
Drayton had retired, said his brother ‘Sned’, but returned to the service on the program that allows veteran employees to remain in active status after retirement. Drayton was the oldest firefighter to die in the Sofa Super Store fire at age 56. He also had the most years service.
On the night of the Sofa Super Store fire, Drayton was working a shift with the crew of West Ashley’s Engine 19. The first call about the fire came in about 7:08 p.m., right after the crew had finished dinner. Engine 19 was dispatched and arrived at the fire about 18 minutes later. At least 16 firefighters were inside the structure when radio dispatchers realized some firefighters were trapped. Then Fire Chief Rusty Thomas at 7:38 ordered a full evacuation of the building. At 7:41 an unsuccessful rescue attempt was made, but rescuers were forced back by the intense fire. Seven minutes later the roof collapsed. It took three more hours to bring the blaze under control.
By 4 a.m. the bodies of Drayton, Capt. Louis Mulkey, Capt. Mike Benke, Capt. William ‘Billy’ Hutchinson, Eng. Melvin Champaign, Eng. Mark Kelsey, Eng. Bradford ‘Brad’ Baity, Eng. Michael French and Firefighter Brandon Thompson had been located. The fire took the most firefighters lives since September 11, 2001 attacks and was later surpassed in the 2013 Granite Mountain Hotshots tragedies.
“We all miss him,” Sned Drayton said of his brother’s extended family that included three biological children and several stepchildren from his two marriages. “They’ve been at all the memorials over the years. We just want to keep the memory alive, said Drayton who annually writes a statement for publication.
This year he wrote, “We would like to thank our community for being with us each year. We also extend out love and support to the families of the Mother Emanuel AME and Orlando tragedies.”