South Carolina Deadly Sofa Store Fire Preventable, Says Study

October 29, 2010

If modern model building codes and sprinkler requirements had been enforced, the fire that took the lives of 9 firefighters and gutted the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, South Carolina in 2007 could have been prevented, a federal study has concluded.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study said that major factors contributing to a rapid spread of the fire on June 18, 2007 included large open spaces with furniture providing high fuel loads, the inward rush of air following the breaking of windows and a lack of sprinklers.

The fire trapped and killed nine firefighters, the highest number of firefighter fatalities in a single event since 9/11.

Based on its findings, the NIST technical study team made 11 recommendations for enhancing building, occupant and firefighter safety nationwide. In particular, the team urged state and local communities to adopt and strictly adhere to current national model building and fire safety codes.

If today’s model codes had been in place and rigorously followed in Charleston in 2007, the study authors said, the conditions that led to the rapid fire spread in the Sofa Super Store “probably would have been prevented.”

“Furniture stores typically have large amounts of combustible material and represent a significant fire hazard,” said NIST study leader Nelson Bryner. “Model building codes should require both new and existing furniture stores to have automatic sprinklers, especially if those stores include large, open display areas.”

Specifically, the NIST report calls for national model building and fire codes to require sprinklers for all new commercial retail furniture stores regardless of size, and for existing retail furniture stores with any single display area of greater than 190 square meters (2,000 square feet). Other recommendations include adopting model codes that cover high fuel load situations (such as a furniture store), ensuring proper fire inspections and building plan examinations, and encouraging research for a better understanding of fire situations such as venting of smoke from burning buildings and the spread of fire on furniture.

The study team found that the addition of automatic sprinklers inside the loading dock could have significantly slowed the fire (which began just outside the dock area), prevented it from spreading beyond the dock, and eventually, extinguished it completely. The model also showed that sprinklers on the loading dock likely would have maintained what firefighters call tenability conditions, the ability for individuals in a fire event to escape unassisted.

Factors identified as contributing to the fire’s progress include:

  1. the high fuel loads—especially furniture—present throughout the building;
  2. the lack of sprinklers throughout the Sofa Super Store;
  3. the open floor plan of the facility;
  4. the hidden build-up of combustible smoke and gases in the area between the drop ceiling and the roof of the main showroom;
  5. the non-fire-activated roll-up door that was open between the loading dock and the holding area;
  6. the four fire-activated roll-up doors (out of seven) that activated but did not close during the fire;
  7. the metal walls in the warehouse and west showroom that allowed heat from the fire to ignite items next to the walls; and
  8. the breaking of windows at the front of the store that supplied air to the fire.

NIST is seeking comments on the draft report — which is available in Volume 1 and Volume 2 — and its recommendations.

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