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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.

Alan Hawes

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.

Alan Hawes

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.

Melissa Haneline

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).

Wade Spees

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.

Mic Smith

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 gsmith@postandcourier.com.







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Comments

This article has  12 comment(s)

Posted by Lifeteller on June 21, 2007 at 7:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Firemen they love what they do
9 firemen die in Charleston, SC
To these brave men and women, that served and gave they’re all-they did what we couldn’t do as they heeded life’s call.
Strongmen and women a special breed-doing they’re job trying to succeed.
Its going to be a long hard road to come back from this tragedy-what we have to realize, they did it to save somebody.
They fought fires because it was something they loved-and what firemen share with each other is stronger than a hug.
It is something that we see as it glows-today God has taken they’re souls.
But before he took them God left a lesson for us to learn-as the world examines the burn.
God says we should never ask why-just understand that there was a reason 9 firemen had to die.
The healing is in remembering who and what they gave up-do you ever think, they might miss us.
How much they want to be with they’re family-death is apart of life you see.
The world watched these firemen so brave-trying to put out fires, as the news tells of the lives they save.
These strangers firemen gave they’re lives for- to them doing what they do means so much more.
It’s a deep feeling I would never try to explain-saving peoples lives flame by flame.
So as the world cries along with the people of Charleston-lets pray for our brave sons.
God ask us not to ask why? -Miss them, love them, but its ok to die.
By: Patricia Robinson-6/19/07-9am



Posted by sing242 on June 21, 2007 at 9:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Please take a moment right now .... not later tonight and lift up the families in prayer.

Father, we ask you to wrap your loving arms around the families of those you have taken and to give them a peace that surpasses all understanding. Hold them close Lord and fill them with your Spirit in this time of need. Amen

Please stand together and lift this prayer up as often as this tragedy comes to your mind.

Psalms 4:1 "Answer me when I call to you, O my righteous God. Give me relief from my distress; be merciful to me and hear my prayer."



Posted by Harleygal on June 21, 2007 at 9:37 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Just a little poem that came to me. The families and friends of these brave, selfless men are in my thoughts and prayers.

Charlestons' Fallen Heroes

A firefighters' life is on the line
Each time he's on a call;
They never know when they'll be asked
To truly give their all.

We honor those whose lives were lost
Fighting hellish smoke and flames--
They made the greatest sacrifice,
And will not fight again.

Now we must all remember
These heroes strong and true,
Who walk on heavens' golden paths
Still watching over me and you.

Pam



Posted by harrisbiz on June 21, 2007 at 11:12 a.m. (Suggest removal)

please be advised that your fellow paid and volunteer firefighters in the state of pennsylvania are with the
charleston city fallen firefighters !

david harris
volunteer
sellersville pa volunteer f - d



Posted by fabulus27 on June 21, 2007 at 11:32 a.m. (Suggest removal)

To all the families, I send out to you my deepest sympathies. My heart goes out to you. May God bless you and be with you during this tragedy.



Posted by fabulus27 on June 21, 2007 at 11:33 a.m. (Suggest removal)

To all the families, I send out to you my deepest sympathies. My heart goes out to you. May God bless you and be with you during this tragedy.

Janet



Posted by SUNTANNED on June 21, 2007 at 11:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I AM DEEPLY SADDENED FOR ALL THE FAMILIES AND FRIENDS IF THE NINE FALLEN FIREFIGHTERS,GOD BLESS YOU ALL.MY PRAYERS AND THOUGHTS ARE WITH YOU ALL AT THIS TRAGIC TIME.SUE FROM CT



Posted by firefighter5417 on June 21, 2007 at 12:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

To everyone at the Charleston Fire Department and their families:

We are so sorry for your loss. Each and every one of you has been in our thoughts and prayers since we heard of the tragic event. Know there are many of us in your extended Savannah Firefighting Family that are keeping you close to our hearts. God Bless all of you.

Love and Prayers,
John and Susan Mulligan



Posted by jftizz on June 21, 2007 at 6:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

First of all, my sincere condolences to the families of the departed brothers, they have heard their final bell and may they rest in peace.

Second, being a firefighter for over 25 years and a retired Fire Code Official, I cannot still understand why our lawmakers still refuse to "take a stand" and make the necessary Code changes so tragedies like this don't occur. In over 200 years of automatic fire sprinklers being in service, there has not been a multiple loss of life in a fully sprinklered building in proper operating condition. This is sustained by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). How can you argue with a success record like this. Wake up, America, and stop allowing innocent people to die needlessly.



Posted by kennyt on June 21, 2007 at 7:27 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I had questions to why these men would but there life's on the line for furniture unless there where victims trapped inside but as I read this article I am not the only one questioning what went on that day and I hope in the future more caution will be used in future fires because I know the fire could have been fought from a distant and 9 lives would have been spared with the proper precautions. I pray for these men and there families and hope it wasn't error on the captains part to send these men in without full knowledge of what was going on.



Posted by Ark_UNION_FF on June 21, 2007 at 10:59 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I wonder how anybody can act so high & mighty about the loss of firefighters when they will not even let the union that the firefighters belonged to help in the memorial service. They (the Mayor & Fire Chief) have excluded the national president of the union to which at least some of my dead, brave brothers were members. President Schaitberger has offered the full resources and support of the International Assoc. of Firefighters to help with planning and organizing of the memorial, but was rebuffed by a anti-union Mayor And Fire Chief. After as many of these tragic events that the I.A.F.F. has been involved in, I would appreciate the assistance of any knowledgeable source, but the I.A.F.F. was rebuffed. I for one will never set foot in Charleston, S.C. or spend a dime in your city as long as you let someone like that lead your city government. We, as firefighters, always have enough to deal with in emergency situations without having to worry about when our chiefs and city officials are going to stab us in the back. My department's thoughts and prayers go out to the families, surviving firefighters and our union brothers. "Cross the gates in peace my brothers, as you have earned a seat at the right hand of the Lord"



Posted by WithHonor on June 21, 2007 at 11:30 p.m. (Suggest removal)

On Monday the Firefighters of Charleston City Fire Dept, went to work like any other day, they never thought tragedy would strike them 9 times. Being a Volunteer Firefighter, Deputy Sheriff and a member of the National Guard, I know what's it like to loose your friend and your co-worker. These brave men were doing a job that they loved, they did a job not for the attention, not for the pay, they did a job because it was in their blood.
They are HEREO's ! and will always be remembered as such. They're life's may have ended but their spirits and memories will live on forever. As the investigation continues and the questions get asked and answered, I ask that we continue to pray for the members of Charleston City Fire Department, the Firefighter families and the community as they mourn the loss of nine Heroic Firefighters. I pray that each and everyone affected by this tragic event will find the strength to continue through life. May God Bless each and every firefighter today and everyday hereafter. GOD SPEED




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