Criminal Negligence Charges Weighed in Deadly South Carolina Store Fire

March 18, 2010

The father of a firefighter who died in a 2007 furniture store blaze that killed nine firefighters says families will meet with state fire investigators next week to discuss whether criminal negligence was involved in the deaths.

“We want justice, not vengeance,” Mike Mulkey said on Monday. His son Louis died in the June 18, 2007 blaze at the furniture store in Charleston.

Mulkey and the family of fallen firefighter William Hutchinson, also concerned the city police department had no business investigating its fire department, met with local prosecutor Scarlett Wilson last fall.

She agreed to pass along to State Law Enforcement Division investigators material brought in by the families about the training and the tactics used in fighting the fire, Mulkey said.

In late 2008, Charleston Police presented Wilson the results of an 18-month study into the fire compiled with the help of SLED and agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

That report has not been released. At the time Wilson said there seemed to be no indication the fire was intentionally set but that she would look at possible issues of negligence.

Wilson did not immediately return a phone call from The Associated Press on Monday.

Wilson has said she is awaiting another report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., before making any final decision on criminal charges. That report, expected by early summer, involves complex computer modeling on how the fire spread.

A third report, compiled by outside experts hired by the city, faulted the city fire department for inadequate training and outdated tactics but also found the fire would have been confined to a loading dock had there been sprinklers in the store. It did not speak to criminal negligence.

Mulkey said members of at least two of the victims’ families as well as firefighters who were on the scene that night will meet with SLED investigators on March 25 in Columbia.

Mulkey said the fire department has made great strides since the disaster.

“The people that caused this problem have all been replaced,” he said. “I’m not downgrading the Charleston Fire Department. What I am saying is that just like in the Navy where I spent 20 years in nuclear-powered submarines, you are accountable for your actions.”

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.

Mike Mulkey was not among those who sued.

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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