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Charleston Sofa Fire

In: Historical Events

Submitted By rigsb005
Words 1702
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Charleston Super Sofa Fire
Charles Rigsbee
Durham Tech, Community College

Introduction

On June 18, 2007, the City of Charleston’s Fire Department lost nine of their firefighters, when they became trapped fighting a fire inside of the Sofa Super Store. This tragedy was the single greatest loss of firemen on duty in the United States since 343 fire fighters died in the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Issues that plagued the Charleston Fire department on the day of the incident included the lack of a proper incident command system; no accountability system and water supply issues hampered firefighting and rescue efforts that dreadful day. Furthermore, the Sofa Super Store’s lack of sprinkler systems in vital areas resulted in heavy fire loads created by high volumes of highly combustible furniture; compliant building additions also contributed to the deaths of the 9 firemen.

The Fire On June 18, 2007, approximately at 6:56 pm, a fire was spotted by someone driving along the Savannah Highway in front of the store. The passerby notified store employees of the fire outside of the loading dock. The manager attempted to extinguish the fire with portable extinguishers but was unable to bring the fire under control. At 7:08, Charleston County 911 Center received a call reporting the fire at the store. Within 2 minutes, Engines 11 and 10, ladder 5 and Battalion 4 were dispatched. Battalion 4 was the first unit on scene, his intimal size up indicated trash and debris burning outside the building, with possible extension inside the building. Engine 10 was the first engine on scene. Engine 10 was positioned on the west side of the structure, where the fire was centered. Engine’s 10 captain pulled a booster line and began an exterior fire attack, while the rest of the crew deployed a 1-1/2 preconnect. The Assistant Chief arrived on scene with Engine 11. The Assistant Chief and two store employees entered the main showroom the front of the building to check for signs of the fire. The Assistant chief reached the double doors that led to the loading dock and there he encountered a small cloud of smoke at ceiling level but soon realized that there was fire beyond the double doors. According to the Phase I Routley report, “The Assistant Chief opened one of the double doors and they immediately observed smoke and flames involving furniture on the loading dock to the right of the doorway. The draft pulled the door out of his hand as air from the showroom was drawn toward the fire” (Routley). A request for a 1-1/2 preconnect was made by the Captain of Engine 11, he had entered the store, while the rest of Engine 11 attempted to setup a supply line for Engine 10. The interior line was brought in by Engine 5’s crew, but once they stretched the pre-connect out, they realized that they would need another pre-connected line so they could reach the fire. The interior attack was delayed once again because the pump operator for Engine 11 was unable to put the engine into pump gear properly. Aware of this, Engine 11’s captain returned to the engine and assisted the driver with placing the engine into pump gear. In a short period of time, smoke had begun banking and the heat inside began to rise. Things went from bad to worse quickly for the Charleston Fire Department. At approximately 7:27 p.m., 911 dispatched notified command that they received an emergency call from a man claiming to be trapped inside the store. The Assistant Chief quickly confirmed with the store manager that the caller was an employee of the store. According to Volume I: NIST Technical study of the Sofa Super Store Fire report “The Assistant Chief took a team of fire fighters and went around the east end of the store, chopped through a locked wooden gate, and located the employee banging on the metal wall. Using pry bars, the fire fighters were able to create an opening in the metal wall and extracted the trapped employee” (NIST). During this rescue operation, command started to receive radio communication that fire fighters were lost or disoriented. These calls for help at first went unanswered because of the tremendous amount of radio traffic and poor radio reception. A few minutes later, L-5 engineer called for a MAYDAY and had activated the emergency response button on his portable radio. Inside conditions change dramatically, the brown smoke turned black and the fire rapidly spread from the rear main show room and out through the front windows of the main showroom. The Fire Chief had called for an evacuation of the building.
The Aftermath
The Charleston Fire Department continued to battle the blaze for several more hours. Numerous engines, ladders, Mutual Aid units and other resources were called to help the Charleston Fire Department. Unfortunately, the fire ended in tragedy, nine firefighters died in an incident that would later be determined to have been entirely preventable. The firefighters had become disoriented from the thick black smoke and could not find their way out of the building. Running out of air, they succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, inhaled smoke, and suffered from thermal burns inside the Super Sofa structure.
There were many questions that needed to be answered, such as how did the fire start, why did it grow so fast and why did nine firefighters lose their lives in a fire that should have been easily controlled and extinguished? Almost immediately following the fire, several federal and state agency began an extensive investigation to determine what caused the fire at the Sofa Super Store and what ultimately led to the deaths of the nine firefighters. Agencies converged on the City of Charleston to conduct the investigation including the NIOSH, NIST, and the SC-OSHA. Also, the City of Charleston formed its own independent team to review the fire at the Sofa Super Store. This team was headed by J. Gordon Routely. He is a retired fire chief, and fire protection engineer, who consults for the United States Fire Administration and National Fire Protection Association. The cause and origin of the fire was determined to have started in the load dock area of the warehouse. According to Volume I: NIST Technical study of the Sofa Super Store Fire report, “The fire began in a pile of trash and discarded furniture, which had accumulated on the asphalt outside the loading dock area. The fire spread into or through a wall that had an exterior surface of metal siding, wood studs and framing, and an interior surface of plywood and/or gypsum board” (NIST). The fire moved from the loading dock area into the holding area. From there the smoke and fire found its way into the warehouse traveling into the main showroom. The smoke was hidden from firefighters because of the void space created by a drop ceiling that was installed in the showroom. This black smoke just needed one thing to ignite, that was air. In the article, The Art of Reading Smoke, it explains the potential dangers of black smoke at a structure fire,” “Black fire” is a phrase to describe smoke that is high-volume, turbulent velocity, ultra-dense, and black. Black fire is a sure sign of impending auto ignition and flashover. In actuality, the phrase “black fire” is accurate-the smoke itself is doing all the destruction that flames would cause-charring, heat damage to steel, content destruction, and victim death” (Dodson) . Fresh air was introduced inside the showroom when firefighters removed the front windows of the main showroom hoping to improve the visibility inside the showroom. This air caused the fire to flash in the showroom, making conditions deadly for the firefighters still inside. The investigation also uncovered that the Charleston Fire Department never establishes a single incident commander. In the article, Lessons Learned, it states “Incident management is the ultimate responsibility of the incident commander (IC) who must conduct a risk assessment, develop an incident action plan (IAP), assign resources and monitor the effectiveness of the operations aimed at accomplishing the plan’s goal(s).” (Baker). In the case of the Super Sofa Fire, IC was established but a command post was never established, there were two separate operational commands attacking the fire with no coordination between them. At one time during the fire, three fire officers were directing independent operations on the fire scene, which contradicts the principles of a unified command. Also the fire chief did not establish a single point of control and became personally involved with the operations at the loading dock, making him unable to see or effectively command the overall incident. The interior firefighting crews were dependent on the IC for instructions, because of the dense smoke they were unaware of the rapidly changing conditions.
Conclusion
The Charleston Fire Department learned some valuable lessons on June 7, 2005. This report only list two of several listed in the investigative reports. A magnitude of changes were to the Charleston Fire Department. It is easy for someone to sit back a second guess the mistakes made that day. We should all take the time to remember the importance of a single point command system at a structure fire. If the command structure was established and maintained, one could easily say that no firefighter would have lost their lives that day at the Super Sofa Store. References

Baker, F.J. (2009). Lessons Learned. Professional Safety, 54 (7), 35-45

Bryner, N. (2010). Technical study of the Sofa Super Store fire, South Carolina, June 18, 2007. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Commerce.

Dodson, D. (2005, September 1). The Art of Reading Smoke. Retrieved from http://www.fireengineering.com/articles/print/volume-158/issue-9/features/the-art-of-reading-smoke.html
Routley, J. G., CHIARAMONTE, M., CRAWFORD, B., PIRINGER, P., ROCHE, K., & SENDELBACH, T. (2007). City of Charleston Post Incident Assessment and Review Team, Phase 1 Report. City of Charleston (SC).
References
Last Name, F. M. (Year). Article Title. Journal Title, Pages From - To.
Last Name, F. M. (Year). Book Title. City Name: Publisher Name.…...

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