Chief Mike Sonefeld leaned back in his chair while he tapped his pencil on his desk. He stroked his mustache as he listened to the voice on the other line. “I got one for ya,” Greg Hildebrand was saying. “He needs to be with you guys. This kid is kind of special.” Greg was a retired battalion chief and could pick out a future firefighter from a mile away. That is exactly what he spent his retirement doing at the Lexington Technology Center — a program that provides specialized training for high school students within Lexington District One. James Michael Muller, also known as J, was the student he had in mind for the Irmo Fire District internship. He was 17, and the kid wanted to be a firefighter.
Through his gruff Chicago accent, Chief Sonefeld grinned and said, “Bring him in.”
J burst through the firehouse door with his head down.
“You’re late,” shouted the operations chief.
“I got a ticket, sir.”
“You’re telling me you got a ticket wearing a T-shirt with Irmo Fire Department on it?” The chief looked squarely at J.
“Yes, sir.” J looked down at the floor. “Do you want me to take it off, sir?”
The chief allowed the silence to build suspense before he said, “I’m just messing with you, Muller.”
J exhaled as the chief hit him on the back, but it was premature relief.
Just a few hours later, J stood before his snickering battalion, holding a letter his firehouse brothers forced him to pen. J was told he needed to explain what he did wrong, how he would never do it again, and what he learned from it. As he read his confession aloud, his face turned red as a fire engine. This was tough love. This was an initiation. This was the stuff that moved J from intern to equal.
He was never late for his shift again.
Each day, J arrived at the firehouse full of energy and optimism and earned the respect of his colleagues. He was living his dream, and no one could doubt his sincerity and passion. J was young, but Mike knew there was something special about him. And although his internship was almost over, one thing remained for J to learn.
“Muller, you’ve got to learn how to drive the truck,” Sonefeld implored.
“But I just want to ride backward, Chief,” J said as he ran his hands through his blonde hair. He knew where the action was, and it wasn’t in the driver’s seat. Guys that rode backward in the truck were the firefighters that never got stuck at the pump. But, if driving the truck was what he needed to do, J would do it with his whole heart.
A couple of weeks later, the chief watched J behind the wheel of the giant red engine. He grinned and shook his head, “This kid can’t back a fire truck to save his life.”
In 2016, J completed his internship at the Irmo Fire Department and was awarded the Lexington One Technology Center’s Student of the Year award.
J pulled up his chair next to Capt. Dominick Boyce around a long wooden table in the firehouse kitchen. It was dinner time, and the guys had already been on shift for more than 24 hours. But lack of sleep never stopped these men from eating well, and regardless of what was on J’s plate, he would always cover it in Texas Pete hot sauce.
“J, just try it first,” urged Dominick.
“You know I like my hot sauce, man.” J smiled as he shook the bottle over his plate.
J’s love for hot sauce was something that never changed. But during his time at the Irmo Fire Department, many other things did. J grew up, married the love of his life, had a son, and grew a remarkable mustache.
J had a distinct baby face. But when a few guys decided to participate in a friendly fall competition to see who could grow the best facial hair for “No-Shave November,” it wasn’t long before J was transformed by his handlebar mustache. And although November came and went, J’s mustache remained.
Cole squealed as J kissed his neck and cheeks, tickling him with his whiskers. Although Cole stood less than 2 feet tall, he was the spitting image of his daddy. And just like J, he loved the firehouse. He had begged his mom for a visit all morning until she finally conceded. Emma leaned in for her kiss from J as he pushed back her long blonde hair. J loved firefighting, but he especially loved his family. And when they were at the firehouse, J felt complete.
If he wasn’t on duty, J dedicated his time to his wife and son. When J’s shift began, he was fully engaged in working, training, teaching, and serving his community. And each morning after his workout, J would pop his head into the chief’s office to say hello, crack a joke, or swap music suggestions. His mop of blonde hair would practically wave to the chief as he smiled underneath his signature mustache. Mike would never have imagined that one May morning, J would pop into his office for the last time.
May 26, 2023
Mike threw his truck in park and slammed the door behind him. Columns of smoke bellowed into the sky on Stoneridge Drive as he made his way to his men.
On May 26, Ladder 175 and Engine 171 assisted the Columbia Fire Department at the Tropical Ridge apartment complex. Mike heard the maydays on his radio and stepped on the gas in his truck. When he arrived on the scene, he saw a group of his men in distress. One of his firefighters looked up at the chief with tears and said, “J’s in there.”
Mike learned that Firefighters James Michael Muller, Nick Macken, and Dylan Williams were fighting the fire on the second floor of the apartment complex. Just above them, three Columbia firefighters began to feel the floor give way under their feet. Muller, Macken, and Williams helped the Columbia firefighters bail as the third floor slowly sank to the second. As the Columbia firefighters made their way to safety, a section of the roof collapsed and pinned Mike’s men on the second floor. Macken and Williams were rescued with injuries. J died helping others escape the fire that would take his life.
May 31, 2023
Mike stood behind a wooden podium at Riverland Hills Baptist Church and shifted his weight on his feet. “I’m standing in front of you at the weakest moment in my entire life,” he said. His eyes gazed down at the casket draped with an American flag below him. “This is not the most comfortable situation for any firefighter. Suits and speeches are not what we do.” Nonetheless, the chief spent the next five minutes remembering J and sharing his impact with a sea of people in the sanctuary.
“His dedication and passion are unmatched,” said Mike. “His devotion to the fire service could be seen from the firehouse to the fire ground.”
According to Mike, J gave 110 percent every day in the fire service. Not only did J show up ready to give his all, but he also came with an extra 10 percent to share with those around him. Everyone who interacted with J walked away a little better than before.
As Mike looked out at his mourning men, he exhorted them with wisdom shared with him many years earlier. “You are standing on the shoulders of 300 years of fire service history,” he said. “The best you can ever think of doing is not to tarnish the badge and to leave it a little better than you found it. J Michael did that, and he’s going to expect us to do the same thing.”
As Mike turned from the podium, he stepped into a future he was unsure how to navigate. But he would brave the unknown for J and each one of his men.
June 20, 2023
Nine men pull up chairs around the long table in the firehouse kitchen. Among them are Nick Macken and Dylan Williams — the last two firefighters to see J alive. A young woman in a red skirt and tortoiseshell glasses nervously sits at the table next to Capt. Dominick Boyce. She’s a writer, and she’s there to learn about James Michael Muller.
“We just called him J,” says Rich Gross, “Not Jay. Just, ‘J.’”
The nervous writer makes the note and asks, “What did J love?”
Without hesitation, Capt. Michael Klawer says, “Firefighting.” The other men nod in agreement. “And his family.”
“He had this amazing mix of knowledge and vulnerability,” remem-bers Chief Sloane Valentino. “He could talk about something so passionately but approach it with so much humility. And he had the best damn mustache I’ve ever seen.”
The guys each crack a smile. The tension in the room lifts, and before long, they forget the writer in the red skirt and swap stories about J amongst themselves. They remember making him read his letter aloud as an intern. They joke about how his driving never improved. They talk about the hot sauce and his hair. They share about Emma and Cole visiting the firehouse and how crazy J was about them. And they remember him as a passionate and dedicated firefighter. And they laugh — a lot.
As they laugh, they honor J. Each day, they take another step into an unknown future, ready to give 110 percent, just like J.