The Sofa Super Store in Charleston, S.C., was one of those huge showrooms out on the highway. Packed with furniture. Maze-like aisles. No sprinklers.
A terrible place to fight a fire.
On June 18, 2007, a trash fire started at the loading dock and quickly spread into the 42,000-square-foot retail area.
Less than 40 minutes later, nine firefighters were dead. An independent review concluded that the Sofa Super Store disaster was “entirely preventable.”
The shocked Charleston Fire Department, which had a tradition of aggressively attacking fires, committed itself to reform and to a more cautious, thoughtful approach to firefighting. The city spent millions on the transformation.
Less than four years later, at another large commercial blaze, Charleston firefighters made many of the same mistakes. Two firefighters narrowly escaped death.
The furniture store fire was reported just before 7:08 p.m. and the first engine company arrived within three minutes, followed closely by the first ladder truck. An assistant chief entered the showroom and saw smoke but no fire. When he opened the door to the loading dock, suction from the fire pulled the door from his hand.
The fire swept into the showroom where firefighters had rushed.
A second engine crew had been told to join the ladder company inside instead of remaining outside as a standby safety team. A third engine company arrived, and that crew also went into the showroom.
The fire quickly outgrew the available water flow and overwhelmed the interior attack crews. Thick dark smoke reduced visibility to zero.
The first firefighters had been inside for 18 minutes and were almost out of air in their tanks. Many were becoming disoriented.
7:30:15 Melvin Champaign, a 46-year-old who volunteered with the Boys & Girls Club, radioed: “We need some help out.”
7:30:22 “This is Thompson. We need some help.” That was Brandon Thompson, 27, who was engaged to be married in a few months.
7:30:31 Champaign again: “Firefighter needs some help out. Lost connection with the hose.” He waited nearly a minute before asking, “Can you hear me, dispatch?”
By 7:31, there were 15 firefighters inside the showroom.
7:32:15 Michael “Frenchie” French, a 27-year-old with a 5-year-old daughter, radioed “mayday.” It was the only time that word was recorded on the radio. No one at the fire scene heard him.
7:32:28 “I love you,” an unidentified person said.
Twelve seconds later, Champaign finished a prayer: “In Jesus’ name, amen.”
The temperature in the showroom was estimated at 1,000 degrees. Several personal alarm systems sounded. They can be activated manually or will sound if the firefighter is motionless for 30 seconds.
Outside, firefighters smashed the showroom’s large front windows to let smoke out and rescuers in. That also let oxygen in, adding fuel to the fire and drawing the flames forward.
Seven firefighters made it out, one by jumping through a broken window.
Two rescue firefighters made contact with some of the disoriented firefighters, but intense heat and flames drove them back. One of the rescuers received second-degree burns on his face, neck, hands and arms. An off-duty battalion chief and an engineer tried to enter the showroom but were driven back.
At 7:38:23, French for the second time pressed the emergency button on his portable radio, sounding an alarm in the dispatch center.
A dispatcher calling EMS by telephone said, “We need some more units over at the Sofa Super Store....We’ve got a whole unit that is not answering our radio, so we don’t know if they are still inside the building or not.”
A few minutes later, the showroom roof began to collapse. But that is not what killed Champaign, French, Thompson and six other firefighters. They died of carbon monoxide poisoning, smoke inhalation and burns.
Thompson was found in an office or storage space at the very rear of the structure. He was in a kneeling or crawling position.
Capt. Mike Benke, 49, was found face down. He was just 19 when he joined the fire department.
Bradford Baity and James Drayton were found near one another, both face down, 40 feet from the front of the building. Baity, 37, left a wife and two children. Drayton, 56, was the oldest and most experienced of the firefighters who died.
Their captain, William “Billy” Hutchinson, 48, was found face down 100 feet from the front entrance. He was a family man known for giving his fellow firefighters $2 haircuts.
It was after midnight when the accounting of the dead was complete. Mark Wesley Kelsey, 40, was a gruff Navy vet who took rookies under his wing. Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34, loved sports and coaching as well as firefighting.
Litany of problems
The immediate reaction to the disaster was to circle the wagons.
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said critics just didn’t understand firefighting.
“That’s the way we fight fires,” he told a reporter. The firefighters who rushed into the showroom “did exactly what they were trained to do.”
The problems started with a lack of effective command. There was no initial risk assessment of the situation.
“The fire chief and the assistant chief were operating independently, supervising operations in different areas,” concluded a report commissioned by the city. “There was no effective coordination between them.”
No one was tracking where firefighters were or what they were doing. The number and identities of the dead were not determined until their bodies were recovered.
The fire crews were using small booster hoses instead of larger attack lines. One supply line stretched about 1,850 feet, bypassing a closer hydrant.
Charleston’s training for basic hose-line operations was minimal.
Communication was a mess. One of the fallen firefighters had left his radio in the truck. No one was assigned to monitor the tactical channel to listen for mayday messages or other signs of trouble. No one at the fire scene heard the distress calls.
The Charleston Fire Department did not have a safety officer, who might have recognized the need to get crews out of the showroom and switch to defensive mode. No firefighters were ready to go in as a rapid intervention crew.
In short, operations at the Sofa Super Store did not meet “recommended safety standards or accepted fire service practices,” the expert panel concluded.
A year later, the South Carolina office of occupational safety and health cited both the business owner and the fire department. The fire department initially was fined $10,000, but the case was settled for $3,160.
That’s $351 and change for each of nine lives lost.
The fire department did not admit any wrongdoing. But the city and fire department set about the difficult job of finding a balance between a smart approach to fighting fires and the aggressive approach they had always taken.
Firefighting students were sent to “survival school” at the fire academy, where they stood on painted footsteps that symbolized their fallen comrades. At the end of each day, a bell rang for the Charleston Nine.
A video produced by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation that remains posted on the Charleston Fire Department’s website contains testimonials from within the department attesting to a new climate of safety. It says “the loss changed the Charleston Fire Department forever” and speaks of a “dramatic reawakening” under Chief Tom Carr, who succeeded Thomas.
In addition, the department committed to stick to the “two-in-two-out” rule, which calls for some firefighters to remain outside a burning structure in case a rescue is necessary. The idea was to gauge risks first.
The city spent about $8 million on the transformation, according to The Post & Courier of Charleston.
Before dawn on March 1, 2011, a fire tore through a two-story medical building in Charleston’s Daniel Island section.
According to an after-incident review, the first engine crew rushed into the building without waiting for backup. As with the Sofa Super Store, they did not have large enough hoses. The captain forgot his radio. There was confusion over where everybody was.
Two firefighters who were inside the building in a stairwell were called out minutes before the steel-truss roof collapsed.
Fire officials acknowledged “glaring similarities” with the Sofa Super Store fire but said it was difficult to “rewire” fire crews who were quick to revert to “old practices.”
But at least, officials pointed out, there was no loss of life.