Fire Service Traditions and History, Firefighting

The Fires That Forged Us: Sofa Super Store Fire

Derek Rosenfeld/YouTube

On June 18, 2007, a fire at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine firefighters dead. The tremendous loss of life shook the American fire service and led to widespread changes in the department.

Charleston Sofa Super Store: An Unfiltered Perspective

The Charleston 9, those members lost in the fire:

Bradford Rodney “Brad” Baity, Engineer 19
Theodore Michael Benke, Captain 16
Melvin Edward Champaign, Firefighter 16
James “Earl” Allen Drayton, Firefighter 19
Michael Jonathon Alan French, Engineer 5
William H. “Billy” Hutchinson, III, Captain 19
Mark Wesley Kelsey, Captain 5
Louis Mark Mulkey, Captain 15
Brandon Kenyon Thompson, Firefighter 5

From the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Report F2007-18, Released February 11, 2009:

On June 18, 2007, nine career fire fighters (all males, ages 27 – 56) died when they became disoriented and ran out of air in rapidly deteriorating conditions inside a burning commercial furniture showroom and warehouse facility. The first arriving engine company found a rapidly growing fire at the enclosed loading dock connecting the showroom to the warehouse. The Assistant Chief entered the main showroom entrance at the front of the structure but did not find any signs of fire or smoke in the main showroom.

He observed fire inside the structure when a door connecting the rear of the right showroom addition to the loading dock was opened. Within minutes, the fire rapidly spread into and above the main showroom, the right showroom addition, and the warehouse. The burning furniture quickly generated a huge amount of toxic and highly flammable gases along with soot and products of incomplete combustion that added to the fuel load. The fire overwhelmed the interior attack and the interior crews became disoriented when thick black smoke filled the showrooms from ceiling to floor. The interior fire fighters realized they were in trouble and began to radio for assistance as the heat intensified. One fire fighter activated the emergency button on his radio. The front showroom windows were knocked out and fire fighters, including a crew from a mutual-aid department, were sent inside to search for the missing fire fighters. Soon after, the flammable mixture of combustion by-products ignited, and fire raced through the main showroom. Interior fire fighters were caught in the rapid fire progression and nine fire fighters from the first-responding fire department died. At least nine other fire fighters, including two mutual-aid fire fighters, barely escaped serious injury.

Firefighters respond to the Charleston Sofa Super Store Fire
All photos by Bill Murton, via NIOSH.

INTRODUCTION

On June 18, 2007, nine male career fire fighters (the victims), aged 27 to 56, died when they became disoriented in rapidly deteriorating conditions inside a burning commercial furniture showroom and warehouse facility. At least seven other municipal fire fighters and two mutual aid fire fighters barely escaped serious injury.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Division of Safety Research, Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program, learned of the incident on June 19, 2007 through the national news media. On June 19, 2007, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) notified NIOSH of the fatalities. That same day, a Safety Engineer and a General Engineer from NIOSH traveled to South Carolina to initiate an investigation of the incident. The NIOSH investigators traveled to the incident site and met with representatives of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and South Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration (SC-OSHA). The NIOSH investigators were on-site June 20-22, and the NIOSH General Engineer returned June 24th to work with representatives of NIST to collect data related to the structure’s constructiona for the NIOSH investigation and for a comprehensive fire reconstruction model. The NIST Building and Fire Research Laboratory developed a computerized fire model to aid in reconstructing the events of the fire.

NIST/YouTube
NIST/YouTube

The fire completely destroyed the structure and the sheet metal roof was removed at the direction of ATF before NIOSH and NIST were allowed access to the structure. Consequently, detailed information on the construction was not available and NIOSH and NIST frequently relied on photographs of the structure after the fire.

Download the Charleston Report (PDF)

Report Critical of Charleston (SC) Fire Response Echoes Sofa Super Store Errors

RELATED RESOURCES

USFA: City of Charleston, post incident assessment and review team, Phase I report

OSHA: The lessons of Charleston

NIST: Volume I: NIST technical study of the Sofa Super Store Fire – South Carolina, June 18, 2007

NIST: Volume II: NIST technical study of the Sofa Super Store Fire – South Carolina, June 18, 2007

NIST: NIST study on Charleston furniture store fire calls for national safety improvements

NFFF/YouTube

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