Building owners, occupants and the fire service all play an important role in the outcome of any fire emergency. In this case one of the most tragic single event outcomes in history for firefighters was attributed to actions, inactions and conditions prior to and during the event itself. This article will review the existing investigative reports and highlight those items that were identified as critical to the overall outcome of this incident. Most of the available information was assembled into what are known as the Phase 1 and Phase 2 Reports by an independent team of respected fire service professionals from across the United States that was appointed by the City of Charleston, SC. Their mission was to conduct an exhaustive review of the incident and develop strategies for the City of Charleston to implement in improving their department, but also to benefit all fire departments across the county. The information developed also identifies crucial lessons for building owners and occupants that can be implemented to avoid becoming a contributing factor in a similar event.
At 7:09 PM on the evening of June 18th Pre-existing conditions inside the building and inadequately managed fireground operations caused the conditions inside the structure to worsen rapidly. Many hose lines would be stretched into the building in an effort to combat the fast moving fire, taking firefighters at times as far as 200 feet inside the structure with zero visibility. By 7:40 PM, those nine firefighters had become disoriented and could not find their way out of the building. Running out of breathing air, they would eventually succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning, smoke inhalation, thermal burns, or a combination in the untenable environment inside.
The most likely cause of the fire is believed to have been carelessly discarded smoking materials that ignited trash outside the loading dock, which in turn ignited furniture stored inside the loading dock, eventually spreading throughout the building. The fire spread through concealed spaces above the heads of firefighters without them being aware of how rapidly the conditions were deteriorating. The fire also communicated unchecked through unprotected doorways and directly penetrated walls that were not constructed of fire rated materials to reach more fuel. By 7:52 PM the roof of the west showroom began to sag due to heat exposure and at 7:56 PM the center showroom roof suffered a catastrophic collapse.(Phase 2 pp 53–80), 2007 the first call reporting a fire behind the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway in Charleston, SC was received by the 9-1-1 dispatch center. The first due Battalion Chief and crew from the dispatched apparatus of Fire Station 11 observed visible smoke immediately upon leaving the driveway of the station and arrived on the scene less than three minutes later. The evening would end in tragedy as nine City of Charleston firefighters would perish in an incident that would later be determined to have been entirely preventable, from the fire itself to the loss of life.