CHARLESTON, S.C. – Inadequate training, outdated tactics and aging equipment helped lead to the deaths of nine Charleston firefighters fighting a furniture store blaze last year, according to a long-awaited analysis by fire experts released Thursday.
The report said firefighters did not follow standard safety practices and had obsolete equipment when battling the Sofa Super Store blaze. Earlier reports also have characterized the department as under-trained and overmatched the evening of June 18 as a small blaze in the store's loading dock spread through the building and eventually overwhelmed firefighters.
The June 18 fire at the Sofa Super Store killed more firefighters than any emergency since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. A panel of experts commissioned by the city composed the report, and The Associated Press obtained a copy ahead of the scheduled release late Thursday.
The report also said that if a sprinkler system had been installed in the building, a former grocery store, the fire likely would have been confined to the loading dock where it started. The blaze was likely caused by discarded cigarettes, though no official cause has been released.
The report comes the day after longtime Chief Rusty Thomas announced his plans to retire, and one week after a similar analysis of the fire from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The latest analysis concludes the department's fire operations the night of the blaze did not comply with federal safety regulations, "recommended safety standards, or accepted fire service practices."
"The culture of the Charleston Fire Department promoted aggressive offensive tactics that exposed firefighters to excessive and avoidable risks and failed to apply basic firefighter safety practices," it states.
The city has already taken steps to address the department's shortcomings, implementing most of the 200 equipment and training suggestions made by the same panel last year.
The new report also included a timeline of the fire and noted that fire officials did not quickly recognize that firefighters attacking the fire needed to be removed from the building.
When it became clear that some firefighters might be trapped in the dark, smoke-filled showroom, Thomas gave an order to smash the windows on the front of the building. That allowed air to enter the building and likely accelerated a flash-over in which the showroom quickly erupted in flames, the report said.
"However there were very few options available at that time," the report said. "Firefighters were lost and either out of air or running out of air inside the building."
The ideal way to remove the smoke would have been to punch a hole in the roof. But the report said there were not enough firefighters or equipment to do that.