Loss prompts grief, provokes questions
Severe burns, smoke claimed firefighters How did small fire spiral into inferno? Amid deep sadness, ATF begins inquiry
The Post and Courier
Thursday, June 21, 2007
Charleston firefighter Richard Happ, who works on Ladder 1, visits the memorial Wednesday in front of the Sofa Super Store in West Ashley where a fire at the store and warehouse killed nine firefighters Monday.
Katie Flavell, a firefighter explorer from Hope Mills, N.C., salutes one of the crosses representing the nine firefighters at a memorial Wednesday outside the Sofa Super Store in West Ashley where a fire at the store and warehouse left nine firefighters dead Monday night.
Charleston firefighters thought they knew what they were getting into when they were called to a blaze Monday at the Sofa Super Store. They had studied the sprawling furniture outlet and prepared a detailed plan of what they might encounter should a fire break out.
But their experience and preparation proved worthless when what seemed like a minor fire exploded through the building, overwhelming the crews caught in its path.
The nine firefighters who died in the blaze were killed by severe burns and smoke. Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten said Wednesday that autopsies determined that the collapsing roof may have trapped the firefighters, but it did not kill them.
At least seven firefighters who were in the building when the fire exploded managed to get out. But the deaths have prompted questions as to why so many firefighters were sent into the burning building to begin with.
City officials have said crews were trying to save lives. One store worker was pulled from the burning building by firefighters, but it is not known if officials thought others were still trapped inside. It is also unclear how a small trash bin fire spiraled into a rolling inferno that consumed the city block-sized Savannah Highway store and its adjacent warehouse.
Authorities have asked the community to be patient while state and federal
agencies investigate. But Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said he would not second-guess his captains on the scene who made the call to go in that night, particularly since someone's life was thought to have been at stake.
"The captains in our fire departments, they call the shots," Thomas said. "They made the decision."
Fire officials have said that crews didn't encounter fire when they first entered the building. But the flames spread from an outdoor trash bin and blew open a door. The fire rapidly ignited sofa and chair material, sending a rolling ball of fire and gas racing toward the front of the building. Firefighters soon were enveloped in intense heat, thick smoke, darkness and confusion, they said.
Mayor Joe Riley said he is confident proper procedures were followed. But he said a thorough investigation is necessary and expected by the community.
About 50 federal, state and local investigators are involved in the probe to determine the cause of the fire. Included in that group are 20 members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' national response team, which includes chemists, forensic investigators and other experts from throughout the Southeast.
Law enforcement and fire department officials escort the body of one of the nine fallen firefighters Wednesday outside MUSC on Sabin Street. The firefighters died Monday in a store and warehouse fire on Savannah Highway in West Ashley.
Station 15 on Coming Street gets a visit Wednesday from the Charleston Hat Divas. Firefighter Capt. Louis Mulkey, who died in Monday's blaze, worked at Station 15. "What can we do?" Rita Duffy (foreground) asked before deciding to bring food and hugs to Ben Waring (right), Curtis Rampersant and William Finley (left). Duffy was joined by Tess Cali and Frieda Margolis (far right).
Earl Woodham, ATF spokesman for the Carolinas, said investigators will conduct a "massive" number of interviews, collect samples, study video surveillance footage and review other evidence to map the fire from its onset to its deadly conclusion. Investigators were waiting for a contractor to remove the unstable roof with a crane so they can begin their work inside the building, Woodham said.
"We will look at everything, and nothing has been ruled out," he said. "This is a loss to be learned from. We want to know what happened here."
The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation also will investigate the department's procedures and training in light of the deaths.
But some leaders in firefighting circles are already questioning the department's handling of the blaze.
Michael A. Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association, said firefighters should not have been in the building unless they were actively searching for civilians based on reliable information.
"To lose nine lives in this fire is totally unacceptable," he said. "It's a needless, needless tragedy. I'm angry and I'm sad."
Parrotta said he understands that families are still in the early stage of grieving, but he said he feels an obligation to ask on behalf of rank-and-file firefighters whether procedures were followed on the scene. "People feel it's in poor taste to ask these questions so soon. We can't forget this. We have to find out what happened."
Parrotta spent 25 years fighting fires with departments in the Myrtle Beach area. The association represents about 735 firefighters around the state, including about 100 firefighters in the Charleston area, he said.
Frank Raffa, a Worcester, Mass., firefighter, was in Charleston on Wednesday to provide support to the firefighters. He said it is easy for people to second-guess after the fact, but firefighters often don't have the luxury of time when battling a chaotic blaze. On Dec. 3, 1999, six firefighters from his department died battling a blaze at an abandoned cold storage warehouse. Two firefighters became lost in thick smoke, and four more firefighters went in after them.
Raffa said criticism also surfaced after the Worcester fire. "One of the questions was 'why are you going into a vacant warehouse?' The initial report was that there were homeless people in there. That's all you need. When in doubt, you always go in."
Capt. Randy Carter (left) with the Charleston Fire Department salutes as other firefighters carry the body of a colleague out onto Sabin Street at MUSC.
Charleston firefighters were certainly familiar with the store. Firefighters at Station No. 11 on Savannah Highway toured the Sofa Super Store in April 2006 and completed a written report noting the location of exits and other building features, Thomas said.
Fire crews also conduct walk-throughs regularly throughout the year to familiarize firefighters with floor plans, sprinklers, electrical systems, employees and exits of various buildings in their service area, including hotels and other large structures.
A copy of the inspection report is kept in a truck at the nearest station, and at the fire department headquarters downtown at Wentworth and Meeting streets.
But the report would have been worthless on Monday, Thomas said. "It would not have been any use to us with the amount of fire that was there," he said.
The blaze was the nation's deadliest firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001, and the loss has resonated from coast to coast. Rhode Island's governor ordered his state's flags flown at half-staff to honor to the fallen firefighters. In California, firefighters were doing the same. Along Savannah Highway, a plaintive message on a business sign: "Pray for Charleston's Bravest."
The fire site remained sealed from the public Wednesday to preserve evidence, and police officers stood guard around the clock. But people continued to stream into the area, shuffling through a driving rain to place flowers, balloons, notes and flags at a makeshift memorial set up just outside the yellow police tape. They cried, hugged, prayed and struggled to understand how such a thing could happen.
"I just couldn't leave without seeing it for myself," said Georgia resident Valerie Chappell, who placed a small America flag at the site. "It's just awful. It's tearing my heart out."
Schuyler Kropf and Noah Haglund contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or email@example.com.