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Irmo Firefighter dies in line of duty: A different news perspective brings tears to my eyes even now

Irmo, SC 05/30/2023 (Paul Kirby) – Some of you may have been surprised that I haven’t weighed in since Friday evening when I heard that an Irmo Fire District Firefighter was killed in the line of duty fighting while on an automatic aid call at an apartment fire with the City of Columbia Fire Department last Friday. In truth, some of my old firefighter friends may have been more than surprised, they might have even been shocked! Before you offer an opinion, let me say that I had a reason to wait, and it all has to do with perspective.

After receiving the first call from an old firefighter that served under me when I worked as a firefighter with Lexington County, I have been as devastated as any other community member and firefighter in the state. I know I can’t feel the same as his biological family, his wife and young son Cole, or the men and women who served alongside him recently, but none the less, all firefighters are in some ways family. They are grieving as a family all across the nation; ever one who has heard about Firefighter Muller’s death is hurting to some extent. Even if they, like me, have been out of the business for more than 20 years, they all are mourning.

That length of time in itself seems strange to me now. I have been out of the business for longer than the 18 years that firefighting was such a major part of my life.

Some of you may not have known that but from the time I was 18 years old until I was well into my 30s, I ate, slept, and breathed the job of firefighting. The fact that I didn’t date seriously or even get married until I was nearly 30 years old should have been a clue to those that knew me. The simple fact was that I was married to something else like a job from the ages of 18 through 29 kept me from giving my heart to anyone else. This was something that I loved so much; I didn’t think I had room for anything or anyone else in my life. Then, when I did finally find the real love of my life, the woman who stole my heart and I’ve been married to for 30 years now, she was also a firefighter whom I met at work. We got married at the church that shared a back fence with the fire station I worked at. We had our wedding reception in the bay at that same fire station in South Congaree. It really consumed me for that many years. When I finally did leave, it was because I had injured myself so severely that I had over 6 months of recuperation time to get over that unending love. I also had worked myself into a serious case of burn out. Truthfully, I needed a huge break and so I retired early.

My wife now asks if I miss firefighting when there’s a big fire somewhere we see on the news. For a short time, I’d say some. Now, as I’m older I say not really. I’m too old, broken down, and sick to miss the excitement, the adrenaline rush, the blast of it all. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.

Let me stop right here and say I’m not in any way trying to make this story about me. If you think that’s what I’m doing, you are way off base. I’m simply trying to make everyone understand my perspective about all this. For all firefighters, the death of Firefighter James Michael Muller means a great deal. Even to us who have been retired for years. I am also devastated by this death. It just hit me differently.

All the other news stations and outlets have done the basics. Firefighter Muller and a number of others were fighting a fire at an apartment complex near the zoo in Columbia. They were doing what they normally do when suddenly the horror of every fire commander’s nightmare was heard on the radio. A mayday! So many news outlets reported that this was the call for all the firefighters to hastily exit the building. Unless things have changed more than I know, that’s not exactly true. A mayday means that firefighters are in trouble, and they need help. They make the call, and everyone reacts. Certainly, other firefighters make a hasty retreat but only for a moment. They immediately begin thinking about rescuing their family members, the other firefighters who are trapped or in trouble.

Other news outlets reported that this happened to a member of the Irmo Fire Department. That’s not exactly correct either. Just as a sheriff’s deputy proudly answers to the call for a deputy, they don’t like being referred to so much as a police officer. Lexington County has no one police department, they are instead protected by the men and women of the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department. It’s no big thing to some but it usually means something to the men and women who serve. James Michael Muller was a proud member of the Irmo Fire District. It hasn’t been a department since its inception, and it does make a difference.

The truth is, the chief of the Irmo Fire District, Chief Mike Sonefeld is a very old and dear friend of mine. We met in the late 80s when we were still in our 20s, back when he came to work for the Lexington County Fire Service. He came from the West Columbia Fire Department, and at the time, I thought he was fun and funny.

When Mike left West Columbia, he came for a few dollars more in pay and more opportunity. Back then, we all made less than $20,000 per year and that in itself is proof that we weren’t in it for the money. Mike was a carpenter on the side and a damn good one. I put in septic tanks, remodeled homes, and later became an instructor for the SC State Fire Academy. Mike was right about the opportunity. For those who could see the future like Mike did, Lexington County’s Fire Service was certainly on the grow.

When Mike came to South Congaree, he was instantly a friend. He was so different than most, yet I loved him like a brother. I loved him like a brother even though he came from Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. I used to tease him and say he was the only damn Yankee I ever liked. This wasn’t exactly true. His younger brother Jim was also here as a student at USC. I never thought anything of it when Mike asked if Jim could come to a cookout at my dad’s house on the lake one summer. After hearing Jim play his guitar as we all tried to sing along, he would later become famous as the drummer for the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish. I remember seeing Mike at the annual St. Patrick’s Day blowout in Columbia’s Five Points. He was in overalls pulling a little red wagon with a cooler full of beer in it. As I said earlier, he made me laugh. He wanted me to come here Jim play the drums with a group of his college buddies who had a band named after a fictional character called Hootie and another fictional bunch called the Blowfish play on the stage. If it meant sharing a few beers out of Mike’s cooler, why not. I followed along and really enjoyed it.

Even Mike’s brother Steve was here in South Carolina. He was cool for a Yankee too. The truth was, these brothers were all rednecks at heart at that made me question if they were born in the wrong portion of the country. They were all great fun to be around and that made a difference to us who were born in SC. They were more likable that most from further north than I had encountered at the time.

When Mike first came to Lexington County, I was his ranking officer. I was an apparatus operator, and he was a firefighter. I was in charge of teaching Mike how to drive a fire truck. Back then, everything we had had a manual transmission. I openly laughed one day when I stopped on the way back from a call and asked if he knew how to drive a stick shift. When he answered, “Does a Datsun B-210 count?” Again, I openly laughed at that question, and he did too. The small forerunner of today’s Nissan certainly didn’t compare with a fire truck’s transmission. Still, I taught him how to drive the truck because we both laughed when he would grind the gears, he’d miss one, and have to stop in the middle of the road and start again. I could go on and on, but I think you understand. We were friends because we shared a lot of laughs and the love of firefighting with one another.

Friday evening, when I heard that Muller had died, I immediately texted Mike and told him I wasn’t contacting him because I wanted the scoop on the news. The fact was, I knew my old friend was hurting. I had spoken with Mike by phone over the past 6 months as we shared the news of a fire they had fought at a strip mall off Bush River Road. Even in that call, we managed to laugh and talk about old times. That’s just the kind of friends we are.

The truth was that I wasn’t really hit by the old firefighter feelings until Sunday after receiving some photos from another close firefighter friend, Tim Spires. He offered to take some pictures of the procession of vehicles that was accompanying Firefighter Muller’s body from the morgue to a funeral home in Lexington. I told him I would appreciate the photos, not knowing how hard that would hit me. It wasn’t until after seeing Mike’s vehicle near the front of that procession that I began to cry. In fact, writing about that now has brought tears to my eyes again. As I sit here and weep at my keyboard, I’m not ashamed. My old family is hurting. One of my oldest friends is hurting, and I’m sure he’s shed more than a few tears over the past few days. I was in pain thinking of his pain.

James Michael Muller was 27, about the age that Mike and I were when we met. I’m sure he had made many friends during the 7 years he fought fire at Irmo. They certainly have to be the ones outside his immediate family that are hurting the worst.

When my wife and my children noticed my tears as I wrote this, they all asked me what was wrong. It’s hard to explain really. It’s just a different perspective on what has happened. The perspective of an old firefighter means something even after all these years. Even though I don’t even drive anymore and can’t attend the funeral in person, my heart will be there alongside all the other firefighters.

Now for the facts of what will be Mullers send off. Funeral services for James Michael Muller will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31, 2023, at Riverland Hills Baptist Church located at 201 Lake Murray Blvd, Irmo SC 29063.

Honor Guard: All interested Honor Guard personnel in participating in the service must contact Captain Tony Banco with Lexington County Fire Service at 803-600-6705 for service details and assignments. Report time for all Honor Guards will be 9:30 AM at Riverland Baptist Church.

Pipe and Drum: All interested Pipe and Drum personnel in participating in the service must contact Captain Austin Ely with Charlotte Fire Department at 828-994-7037 for service details and assignments. Report time for all Pipe and Drum personnel will be 10:00 AM at Riverland Hills Baptist Church.

Apparatus: All outside departments that are bringing fire apparatus please see parking attachments. If you have any questions, please contact Chief Steve Graham with Boiling Springs Fire District at 864-444-4275. All apparatus should not arrive before 11:00 AM but must be onsite by 12:45 PM. No procession will be held, there will be a static display only.

Firefighter Muller was awarded the Lexington One Technology Center’s Student of the year award in 2015-2016. He completed both the Firefighter 1 & 2 curriculum in the same year, something he had to talk his instructor and the school’s administration into, after transferring to Lexington from a school that did not offer this course. Ironically, Bryan Hearn, the school’s principal, is another friend of mine and Muller’s instructor Greg Hildebrand is also. In fact, Chief Hildebrand was Mike’s senior at the West Columbia Fire Department when he left. He retired from there after many years of service. During high school, Muller interned at the Irmo Fire Department (their words, not mine), every afternoon and was a member of the Lexington County Fire Service Explorers Post #1974.

On behalf of the family of James Michael Muller, it has been requested that all non-fire personnel in attendance wear colorful attire as a tribute to their loved one.

For all those not attending, please visit the live stream page of Riverland Hills Baptist Church on Youtube. Link provided below.

Call the Editor
(803) 587-3144

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Call Paul Kirby

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