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City and state officials to investigate firefighters handling of deadly S.C. blaze
CORRECTION Charlest 6953831
Katie Flavell, from the Hope Mills Fire Department in North Carolina, salutes at a memorial outside the Sofa Super Store, Wednesday, June 20, 2007, in Charleston, S.C. A fire at the store and warehouse left nine firefighters dead Monday night. Flavell said that she came to Charleston to pay respects to the firefighters who lost their lives. - photo by Associated Press
    CHARLESTON, S.C. — How did a trash fire in an outdoor bin manage to spread to a furniture store and explode into a raging inferno that killed nine firefighters? And why were as many as 16 firefighters inside the place when the roof came down?
    City and state officials announced plans to investigate and find out as questions mounted Wednesday over the Fire Department’s handling of the Sofa Super Store blaze, the nation’s deadliest firefighting tragedy since 9/11.
    Among other things, investigators want to know whether fire crews violated safe firefighting procedures and whether they were adequately trained and equipped.
    Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said that he was confident the department followed proper procedure, but that the investigation is necessary.
    ‘‘Part of the purpose is to look, for us or any fire department in the country, if there are lessons learned in terms of how well things were done or any aspect of it,’’ said Riley, who added the inquiry would include asking whether too many firefighters were in the building Monday night.
    Fire officials vehemently defended their actions.
    ‘‘The captains did exactly what they were trained to do. They didn’t do anything they wouldn’t have done at any other time. They didn’t make a mistake when they first went in there. They did exactly what they were supposed to do, there’s no question,’’ said Assistant Fire Chief Ronnie Classen.
    He said the fire captain who made the call to send men into the building saw only smoke.
    ‘‘When he walked in he could look around inside and it wasn’t that bad,’’ Classen said. But the fire quickly spread — enveloping the men in heat and thick, black smoke.
    The first firefighters on the scene initially reported that trash was on fire in a bin behind the building, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said. As for why the fire could not be extinguished before it spread, he said, ‘‘I don’t know.’’
    Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin told The Post and Courier of Charleston that as firefighters tried to put out the fire in the trash bin, the blaze spread to the building, a door blew open and the flames swept in.
    ‘‘We tried to close the door, but we couldn’t,’’ he told the newspaper.
    He said firefighters started bringing in hoses, but they didn’t stand a chance as the sofa and chair material ignited in the building, a combination showroom and warehouse stacked with mattresses and other furniture five and six high.
    One expert, Carl Peterson, director of public fire protection division at the National Fire Protection Association, said fire creeps into tough-to-detect places, moving through walls and other concealed spaces. Peterson said he did not have enough information to say whether fire officials made any mistakes.
    Peterson said there is no standard on the number of firefighters in a structure ‘‘as long as the building is safe.’’
    ‘‘If fire is blowing out over your head, then it’s 15 people too many in the building,’’ he said.
    Another expert, Mike Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Fire Fighters Association, said South Carolina is the only state that allows fire officials to sidestep a federal regulation requiring that for every employee doing hazardous work inside a building, one must be outside.
    Parrotta said that he did not know whether that played a role in Monday night’s tragedy, but that the issue needs to be raised.
    ‘‘We in the fire profession are asking questions: How did this tragedy happen to these nine people?’’ said Parrotta, a retired Myrtle Beach firefighter. ‘‘After Friday, after the memorial services and stuff, hopefully they will go to task and get all the tough questions answered.’’
    One consultant said the decision to send so many firefighters into the building may have been particularly unwise.
    ‘‘There’s some point that somebody’s got to say, ‘Maybe now’s not the time,’’’ said Lee DeVito, president of FIREPRO, a fire protection consulting firm based in Andover, Mass. ‘‘I would have some serious thoughts about doing that.’’
    In addition to the city, South Carolina’s Labor, Licensing and Regulation Department is investigating how the fire was handled. The department will look into whether fire officials properly trained and equipped the firefighters, and ‘‘we’ll ask how firefighters performed their jobs,’’ said department spokesman Jim Knight.
    The cause of the fire is under investigation by state and federal officials, but arson is not suspected.
    The victims died of smoke inhalation and extensive burns, Coroner Rae Wooten said.
    ‘‘They lived together, they worked together, they played together and they died together,’’ she said.
    Dozens of townspeople watched as the bodies were taken in a procession of hearses that left the coroner’s office for various funeral homes. Each was escorted by police and the fire trucks on which they served.
    Memorials to the nine men were set up in front of fire stations and at the gutted store. In front of the city’s main fire station, flowers sent by firefighters from around the region were piled high and a note read: ‘‘We are so, so sorry for your loss. Our hearts are heavy and our admiration for all of you even stronger. ... You make our neighborhood a brighter place.’’
    The firefighters went into the building after an employee in the store, working in a repair shop off the warehouse, called 911 on a cell phone after he couldn’t find his way out past smoke and flames. The employee, Jonathan Tyrrell, was eventually rescued.
    Tyrrell, 28, said Wednesday he found a hammer and worked feverishly in an attempt to smash a fan from its mounting in an outside wall to get outside. He said he kept hammering away in the hope firefighters would hear him.
    ‘‘The smoke was getting thicker and thicker. I basically laid on the floor hitting cabinets and walls and anything I could reach. A few minutes later I heard the firemen yelling and I knew exactly where they were,’’ he said.
    A firefighter chopped through the metal siding and ‘‘I could feel the fresh air just coming.’’
    ‘‘If it wasn’t for God and it wasn’t for the firefighters, coming to get me though the wall, I wouldn’t have made it,’’ he said.
    Associated Press writers Russ Bynum and Meg Kinnard in Charleston, and Pete Iacobelli in Columbia, contributed to this report.

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