Federal Study of Fatal 2007 South Carolina Sofa Store Fire Not Ready

March 12, 2010

A complex federal study of a fire that killed nine South Carolina firefighters, already delayed by months, is still months from completion, authorities said.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., is studying the June 18, 2007, blaze that gutted the Sofa Super Store in Charleston. Its report had been expected last year.

The study has taken longer than expected because only a few institute staffers are qualified to conduct the complex computer modeling required, agency spokesman Michael Newman said.

The agency is modeling why the fire spread so quickly, why the building collapsed and whether sprinklers could have saved lives.

Prosecutor Scarlett Wilson has said she is awaiting the report before making any final decision on whether criminal charges should be filed stemming from the fire.

In late 2008, she received the results of an 18-month study by Charleston Police. At the time she said there seemed to be no indication the fire was intentionally set but that she would look at possible issues of negligence.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could not determine an exact cause of the fire but concluded smoldering cigarettes or someone lighting materials on a loading dock were likely causes.

A 2008 report by a panel of city experts faulted the fire department for inadequate training and outdated tactics but also found the blaze would have been confined to a loading dock had there been sprinklers in the store.

The Institute of Standards and Technology has conducted studies of fires at the World Trade Center and at a Rhode Island nightclub in 2003 that killed 100 people. The agency hopes to issue its report on the Charleston blaze late this spring or early in the summer, Newman said in an e-mail.

Families of eight of the fire victims sued 30 people and companies, including the furniture store, and various furniture and equipment manufacturers. The plaintiffs have now settled with 20 defendants for $6.8 million, though there has been no settlement with the store and no trial date set.

The families of all nine victims also received between $640,000 and $775,000 each from workers’ compensation and a public fund for the firefighter families.

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