Ascension Parish Fire Dist. #1 holds training session on the deadliest firefighter disaster in the U.S.

Fire Chief James E. LeBlanc

Sixty Volunteer Firefighters from St. Amant, 5th Ward., Galvez-Lake, Geismar, 7th. Dist., and Sorrento Volunteer Fire Departments recently participated in a parish-wide training on the Charleston Sofa Store Fire that occurred on June 18, 2007 where nine firefighters were killed. The Instructor Ken Fowler teaching the course was actually at the fire on June 18, 2007. The training course in Ascension Parish focused on the Incident Command Systems and accountability of our volunteer firefighters on all working scenes.

The Charleston Sofa Super Store fire occurred on the evening of June 18, 2007, in Charleston, S.C. and killed nine firefighters. This was the deadliest firefighter disaster in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks. The fire was believed to have started in some discarded furniture in the loading dock area, and though the source of ignition has been left undetermined, there is reason to believe it may have been a discarded cigarette.

The fire occurred at the Sofa Super Store, composed of a 42,000 square-foot, single-story steel trussed showroom building with a 17,000 square-foot warehouse building located behind the retail space, located at 1807 Savannah Highway in Charleston. The building had no fire sprinkler system. The fire started at approximately 7 p.m. in a covered loading dock area built between the showroom and warehouse buildings which was attached to both buildings. At the time, the business was open and employees were present. Charleston firefighters arrived on the scene within three minutes of the alarm, followed soon after by firefighters from the St. Andrews Public Service District.

The initial attack focused on extinguishing the fire in the loading dock area, with a secondary effort to search for and evacuate people inside, and prevent the fire from spreading to the showroom and warehouse. Crews entering the showroom reportedly initially encountered clear visibility with only very light puffs of smoke visible near the ceiling at the back of the showroom. Shortly thereafter, an exterior door was opened near where the fire was raging. Efforts to close the door failed, allowing the fire to enter the showroom. Firefighters were ordered to stretch two hose lines into the showroom to attack the spreading fire. However, the pre-connected hose line from one of the units was too short. This required some firefighters to again exit the building to add additional sections of hose, and left only one small handline to hold back the growing fire. At about this time, fire dispatchers advised the crews on-scene that they had received a 9-1-1 call from an employee who was trapped in the warehouse, which required some firefighters to direct their attention to the rescue. The trapped employee was eventually rescued by firefighters who breached an exterior wall to reach him.

Despite efforts to confine and extinguish the fire, it continued to spread into the structure and ignited furniture in the showroom, growing more quickly than the few operating hose lines could control. Meanwhile, efforts to stretch and begin operating additional hose lines continued. At 7:41 p.m. the showroom area of the store experienced a flashover while at least sixteen firefighters were working inside. The flashover contributed to the rapid deterioration of the structural integrity of the building, leading to a near-complete collapse of the roof minutes later. Many of the firefighters caught in the flashover were unable to escape and were trapped under the collapsed roof and shelving, weakened by the fast-spreading fire. Several calls for help were made by trapped firefighters and efforts to rescue them were commenced. These efforts proved unsuccessful. By the time the fire was brought under control, nine Charleston firefighters had been killed.

The Sofa Super Store site was on a major business and commuter artery feeding the suburbs and shopping centers of Charleston. Car traffic continued unabated for many critical minutes in the initial stages of the fire, driving over water supply lines and contributing to severe water supply problems, as the supply lines snaked from hydrants in surrounding blocks up to a half-mile away from the center of the fire. Eventually automobile traffic on Savannah Highway was stopped so water pressure would be more consistent. The traffic diversion caused surrounding neighborhoods to fill with stranded commuters and onlookers. As the fire diminished and appeared contained, nearing 11:00 p.m., surrounding neighborhoods began to clear and onlookers departed, most unaware of the loss of life during the blaze.

According to Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten, the firefighters died of a combination of smoke inhalation and burns, but not from injuries sustained from the collapse itself. It was the greatest single loss of firefighters in the United States since 343 firefighters were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center in the September 11, 2001 attacks. It was also the deadliest fire in South Carolina since a fire that killed eleven people at the Lancaster County jail in 1979.