More than 2,400 people, departments from 7 states celebrate fallen Irmo firefighter

By Jordan Lawrence and Kailee Kokes
Posted 5/31/23

Firefighters from at least seven states along with various politicians, first responders, family and community members gathered May 31 to celebrate the life of an Irmo firefighter who died in the line of duty.

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More than 2,400 people, departments from 7 states celebrate fallen Irmo firefighter


Firefighters from at least seven states along with various politicians, first responders, family and community members gathered May 31 to celebrate the life of an Irmo firefighter who died in the line of duty.

The funeral for James Michael Muller, 25, was held at Riverland Hills Baptist Church, with those not in the fire service asked to wear bright colors in tribute to Muller and his family. Muller was killed responding to what officials called a massive multi-alarm fire at the Tropical Ridge apartment complex in Columbia on May 26.

Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld said in a statement that Muller’s death was the result of “a structural collapse during fire suppression efforts” at the scene.

Muller’s body was brought to the church by Irmo Fire Engine 171, which was his truck, arriving under an American flag held aloft between two other Irmo fire engines. He was carried into the sanctuary through a “sea of blue,” with lines of blue-shirted firefighters lined up to give him the traditional honor.

The service was well-attended, with crowds spilling out of both of the main sanctuary where the event was held and a second sanctuary where overflow attendees could watch on video. The two rooms both hold 1,200 people. The ceremony was also live-streamed.

A spokesperson said more than 75 fire trucks were present at the funeral, and firefighters representing departments in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, Maryland, Florida and Ohio were in attendance. S.C. State Fire’s Task Force 1, which is hard at work determining the cause of the Tropical Ridge Fire, paused their efforts to be present as Muller’s body was ushered into the church.

Also at the funeral was Gov. Henry McMaster, who sat with Muller’s family, along with at least three state representatives.

“I'm standing in front of you at the weakest moment of my entire life. And that's OK. Because you're doing the same thing,” Sonefeld told those in attendance. “We're here for each other. That's a big part. It's OK to be weak right now. That's what they're telling me. So I'm gonna go with that. “

Sonefeld spoke about Muller's dedication, passion and devotion to the fire service.

“I always hated the word, ‘give it a 110%,’ I just barely got out of algebra, but it doesn't add up. It's 100%. That's just what it is. You can't add to that in my simple mind.” Sonefeld said, explaining that the more he thought about Muller after his passing, the more he became convinced that he did bring 110%.

“He brought 110 so he could give the rest to us when he came to work. If I came in at 90, I left at 100% guaranteed, and that was his kind of magic potion to everybody.”

Sonefeld said Muller got his passion from his family and the Irmo fire department was the vehicle to make it happen. He leaves behind a wife and a son.

Rev. Kermit Morris, Muller’s grandfather, also spoke.

“My grandson, J Michael, I’d think you'd agree, lived a full life. He was full of life,” he said “One might even say it was a life well lived, and how do you say that about somebody 25 years old? But he did, he lived a full life.”

Morris said Jay knew God’s plan for his life and that he was living it everyday, explaining that firefighting was his dream and his calling. He added that Muller’s calling for the fire service was a dangerous one, referencing John 15:13 – “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Muller’s grandfather shared that he believes his grandson was greeted by all the other heroes in heaven, joking that he would have taken a look at them and told them to grab their gear because he had a new workout for them.

The service ended with a bell being rung in three rounds, signifying Muller’s end of duty.

After the ceremony, Irmo Assistant Fire Chief Sloane Valentino thanked the community for their support as the department recovers from the tragedy. 

According to a spokesperson, Muller was the first firefighter to die in the line of duty in the history of the Irmo Fire District, which was founded in 1963, and the first South Carolina firefighter to die in the line so far this year.

Valentino said the department has remained off duty since Muller’s death, and plans to remain so until Saturday, with departments from Anderson, Newberry, Gant and South Greenville stepping in to cover the area. 

The spokesperson said that in total, 48 departments have helped fill in for impacted fire stations in Irmo, Columbia and Lexington County as they deal with the tragedy.

Valentino said he’s not sure when the department will get over the loss and that they have been surrounded by mental health professionals since the weekend. 

He also reflected on having gone to other firefighters’ funerals in the past, expressing how strange it felt to now have other firefighters from faroff spots coming to support his department.

“We are the people that serve others and when we need people to serve us that's just a really weird feeling,” Valentino said. “To be surrounded by the love and affection of the fire service has meant everything to us this week. They've taken care of needs that we didn't even know we had.”

And that dedication to serving the community seems sure to continue.

Brooks Mixom, a 10-year-old who said he knew Muller well and saw him as an idol, was in attendance dressed as a firefighter.

He called Muller “an amazing firefighter” and said he still wants to follow in his footsteps when he grows up.

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