Questions Linger After S.C. Fire That Took 9 Firefighters’ Lives

There is a border here between life and death.

On one side are the bouquets and wreaths of fading flowers; balloons and ribbons and small American flags where the living remember nine fallen Charleston, South Carolina firefighters.

Beyond the memorials is yellow police tape and, across a no man’s land of pavement, a chain link fence guards the charred steel and twisted metal that remains of the Sofa Super Store where the nine fell battling an inferno June 18.

Nearly two weeks later, after the greatest single loss of firefighters since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, questions remain about the fire’s cause and whether the nine should have been in the building. That could be debated for a long time, particularly because fighting fires in furniture stores can be a nightmare, said John Dean, the president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

“Having multiple pieces of upholstered furniture, once one gets started, it very quickly feeds to the next and the next and the next,” he said.

The polyurethane foam used in cushions can ignite rapidly. “It’s a petrochemical product — basically solid gasoline and very, very flammable,” Dean said.

The showroom, which was about half of the 60,000 square-foot store that included a warehouse, also had a steel truss roof, which is a dangerous type of structure in fires.

“Fires in truss systems can burn for long periods before detection and can spread quickly across or through the trusses,” warned a 2005 report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Steel trusses are also prone to failure in fires because the steel weakens when heated. In the Charleston fire, witnesses reported the roof collapsing. The coroner said the firefighters died of burns and smoke inhalation.

“The flashover killed these guys. It wasn’t the roof. What we have to find out is what were the conditions that caused this to flashover,” said Jim Bowie, executive director of the South Carolina Firefighters Association, which offers training and benefits to 16,000 firefighters.

All investigators have said for sure is the fire began near a loading dock — an area where old furniture was kept for disposal and where cardboard and packaging awaited pickup by trash trucks. Store employees took cigarette breaks there.

Herb Goldstein bought the property, used since the 1960s as a supermarket, in the 1990s. He added on to both sides for a showroom and built a warehouse, which was stacked with furniture five racks high.

The store had neither smoke alarms nor sprinklers but it was not required under city codes. Sprinklers would only be required if the building were built today.

Goldstein had added a roof to the loading dock area without a city permit, but city officials have said it is unclear whether the construction would have required installing sprinklers.

In the aftermath, the local firefighter’s union raised questions about the fire department’s response, including a policy allowing incident commanders to enter the fire. Federal guidelines call for incident commanders to stay outside.

Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin, the incident commander that night, has said he made three trips into the building in about five minutes and noticed the smoke getting progressively worse.

But he said it still seemed manageable enough for men to go inside. He has said he thinks the fire may have been spreading through the space above the ceiling.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said the command system the city used that night has been effective since he became chief 15 years ago.

“The way we do things was very effective that night,” he said, adding “if we had to do it again today in the same situation, our guys would do it the same way they did it.”

But he added that the department always wants to improve.

If the investigations show that the system needs to be changed “we will look into changing it,” he said. “If we can make improvements to make our department better, that’s what we’ll do.”