Tragedy struck the Charleston area on the evening of June 18, 2007 when a furniture store erupted into an inferno that left nine City of Charleston firefighters dead. The Sofa Super Store in the West Ashley community of Charleston became engulfed in a torrent of smoke and flames shortly after 7:00 p.m. Fire investigators suspect that an abandoned cigarette on the store’s loading dock ignited the massive building, which spanned almost two acres of land. In 2008 the City of Charleston purchased the site of the fire for $1.85 million to convert it into a memorial park. Today an American flag stands at half-mast on the site of the catastrophe, and metal memorials honoring each of the fallen firefighters dot the park grounds.
Though the building was packed with furniture made of combustible foam, it contained no sprinkler system. However, building codes at the time did not require sprinklers in the original store space; four additions to the store, constructed without permits, would have required sprinklers. Because the city had not inspected the building for fire code violations since 1998, the additions were not subjected to code scrutiny. Despite the fact that sprinklers would have slowed the blaze or contained it in the loading dock area, a report by a panel of firefighting experts, appointed by the City of Charleston, maintains that the tragedy was also the result of other building code violations such as the absence of fire walls between the additions, which could have prevented the spread of the fire. In addition, exits were padlocked and pathways through the store were blocked.
The panel further found that the city shared responsibility for the deadly blaze because it employed outdated tactics and equipment and demonstrated a lack of command during the fatal event. In a sad irony, then-Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin personally led a walk-through of the store the previous year in an effort to plan how to combat a fire there. Unfortunately the plan omitted key details, including such basics as the building’s layout and exits. Other criticisms of the fire department were numerous. For example, although a thermal imaging camera was on site, it was never used. Also, Garvin himself should not have entered the store. National standards require the highest-ranking person at a fire to monitor the scene and issue commands from his or her post; Garvin initially was the highest-ranking person to arrive at the fire. Even after Fire Chief Rusty Thomas arrived, commands continued to be issued by multiple officers in an unstructured manner, leading to confusion among firefighters.
By 7:45 p.m. the steel truss roof of the store’s showroom collapsed with 16 firefighters inside. Nine firefighters were unable to escape, perishing at the scene. 16 minutes earlier, at 7:29 p.m., an employee of the store was rescued from the warehouse when firefighters cut a hole in the metal wall and pulled him from the smoke-filled building. The employee credits firefighters at the scene, including Garvin, for his rescue.
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas announced his retirement from the fire department in June of 2008. Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin also retired the following month, though his departure was at the request of interim Chief Ronnie Classen. Despite the panel report damning both the store’s violations and the fire department’s negligence, the department claims that Garvin’s retirement was unrelated to the events of June 18, 2007. Assistant Chief Eddie Bath retired during this period as well, and Classen stepped down after Thomas Carr was named Chief in 2008. Chief Carr died of complications from Parkinson’s disease in 2013. Today the Charleston Fire Department is led by Chief Karen Brack.
The nine firefighters who lost their lives in the Sofa Super Store fire were: Captain Mike Benke, Captain Billy Hutchinson, Captain Louis Mulkey, Engineer Mark Kelsey, Engineer Brad Baity, Assistant Engineer Michael French, Firefighter Earl Drayton, Firefighter Brandon Thompson, and Firefighter Melvin Champaign. Nine PVC crosses adorned with American flags mark the section of highway where the men died in service to their community. Each year a memorial service takes place within the Charleston Nine Memorial Park in honor of the aforementioned firefighters. As part of the memorial service, fire personnel stand watch in the park for 24 hours, guarding the ground that commemorates the bravery of the Charleston Nine.