Much publicity has been made of the West Texas tragedy that claimed the lives of 11 first responders, the greatest single loss of life for the fire service since the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. But the second-worst firefighter loss of life since 9/11 marked its sixth anniversary last week.
On June 18, 2007, at approximately 7:07 p.m., units from the Charleston, S.C. Fire Department were dispatched to a Sofa Super Store located at 1807 Savannah Highway in the West Ashley section of town for a fire in the rear of the building.
The store was a 42,000 square-foot showroom building with an additional 17,000 square-foot of storage for the store’s merchandise, which included a wide range of furniture such as beds, living room furnishings, and cabinets. The store was open at the time of the fire, with dozens of employees and customers inside.
The fire ignited in the covered loading dock area of the building, which connected the warehouse to the showroom, in a pile of trash which workers were known to take smoke breaks near. When the first Charleston F.D. crews arrived on location only three minutes after their initial dispatch, they reported a small rubble fire near the exterior wall of the loading dock.
There was only minimal smoke reported showing in the showroom area of the building, and firefighters began evacuating the building’s occupants for precautionary measures. Additional crews advanced hoses to the rear of the building where the loading dock was located to attack the fire.
At 7:13 p.m., just three minutes after arriving on location, a firefighter checking for extension of the fire from the exterior trash fire to the interior of the building opened a door from the showroom that leads to the loading dock. The force of the rubbish fire was too strong for the firefighter to close the door, and the sudden burst of fresh oxygen fueled the fire, allowing it to enter the showroom.
The fire quickly traveled throughout the open showroom, easily igniting the highly flammable objects on display. Additional alarms were requested by the incident commander, bringing in crews from neighboring fire departments in addition to more Charleston firefighters. Several crews of firefighters entered the showroom to search for any employees and customers who had not been evacuated.
At approximately 7:26 p.m., a 9-1-1 call is received from an employee who is trapped in the warehouse part of the building due to the raging fire. Firefighters breeched a wall in the warehouse and rescued the trapped worker as crews continued to attack the fire and search for trapped occupants in the showroom area.
At 7:32 p.m., within 16 firefighters inside the showroom, the first “Mayday” was dispatched by a firefighter over the radio. A mayday is an emergency distress call used over the radio when a firefighter is in an emergency situation, unable to escape the building in his current location. Through a series of frantic radio traffic, multiple maydays were transmitted, and exterior rescue crews enter the warehouse to rescue the downed firefighters.
Soon thereafter, fire command noticed that conditions were rapidly deteriorating, and ordered the immediate evacuation of all firefighters from the building. At approximately 7:42 p.m., a “flashover” occurred in the building. A flashover occurs when the fire becomes so hot that virtually all of the combustible materials in a given space ignite at the same instant.
At 7:45 p.m., the roof of the showroom collapsed into the building, ending the final rescue attempts by firefighters for the initial mayday. Firefighters continued to battle the blaze for nearly two hours before it is finally brought under control. At 10:01 p.m., the remains of two firefighters were found near the center of the building – Engineer Brad Baity, age 37, and Firefighter James Drayton, age 56.
At a news conference held around 10:34 p.m., Charleston Mayor Joe Riley announced the discovery of the two deceased firefighters, as well as the fact that at least five more firefighters remained unaccounted for.
Approximately 15 minutes after the press conference, the bodies of Firefighter Melvin Champaign, age 46, and Engineer Michael French, age 27, were located less than 30 feet from the location of the first bodies. And around 11 p.m., three more bodies were found at the rear of the showroom – Captain Mike Benke, age 49, Captain William Hutchinson, age 48, and Acting Captain Mark Kelsey, age 40.
Crews continued to sift through the remains and douse hotspots for several hours, and recovery searches continued for the missing firefighters. At approximately 4 a.m. June 19, over nine hours after the initial mayday was transmitted, the bodies of Captain Louis Mulkey, age 34, and Firefighter Brandon Thompson, age 27, were located in the rear corner of the showroom.
At the conclusion of the event, nine Charleston firefighters died in the line of duty, and at least nine other firefighters barely escaped serious injury, according to the report by the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. The investigation conducted by the Charleston FD, NIOSH, and an independent study team found a number of factors that led to the deaths, and recommended sweeping changes to the daily operations of the CFD.
As a result, the Charleston Fire Department has since become one of the nation’s leading innovators in the fire service, and has implemented a number of important changes, including standardized incident command procedures, minimum four-person apparatus staffing, standardized training and qualification requirements for not only CFD but also the neighboring departments that provide mutual aid, and creating a standardized Safety Officer procedure.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has since documented the recovery and sweeping changes that have taken place in the department, and how the firefighters of Charleston have coped with the loss of nine co-workers, in a 25-minute documentary titled “The Charleston Nine: Ultimate Sacrifice.” The documentary is available in its entirety, free of charge, on the NFFF’s Youtube page.
A series of changes were made following the fatal fire outside of the fire service as well, including the implementing of mandatory fire sprinklers in commercial buildings in numerous states across the nation.
The incident continues to be a lasting reminder of risks and sacrifices firefighters make every day, and shows how any incident can turn tragic. Stay safe.
Knoll, 21, of Eldora, can be contacted by email at email@example.com. He is a student at Rowan University.