Trapped: The story of nine Charleston firefighters' deaths
A man's voice crackles over the Charleston 911 dispatch line at 7:08 p.m. on June 18. 'I'm at the Sofa Super Store on Highway 17,' the man shouts. 'There's a big fire in the back of the warehouse. It's huge.'
More calls flood the switchboard. Hurry, the callers say, smoke is pouring from the building.
Black smoke curls into the humid air over Savannah Highway. Rush hour wanes, but traffic still chokes the four-lane boulevard lined with a dense hodgepodge of car dealerships, fast food restaurants and strip malls.
The Sofa Super Store sits smack in the heart of this bustle, a one-time grocery store reborn as a discount furniture outlet. The building occupies nearly two acres of land, a sprawling mass of stucco and steel that squats between a gas station and a used-car lot. Inside the expansive showroom are hundreds of couches, filled with foam so highly combustible it burns like solid gasoline. The building contains no fire sprinklers.
Alarms sound at Engine Co. 11 while the on-duty crew shares a dinner of chicken pot pie with two veteran commanders, Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin and Battalion Chief George 'Buddy' Aytes. Based less than a mile away on Savannah Highway, their station house sits nearest to the sofa store. The men shove aside their plates, grab their gear and head for the door.
The men on Ladder 5 and Engine 10 follow close behind. Some call their station in Avondale the Five and Dime. Two miles lie between them and the fire.
Firefighter Brandon Thompson rides aboard Ladder 5, working a buddy shift to cover for a friend.
He's been hanging around fire stations since he was 14 years old.
Now 27, he's already a veteran and plans to get married in the fall. Michael 'Frenchie' French mans the wheel, a beer-drinking country boy who lives to fight fires. Mark Kelsey, a brassy rebel with a passion for motorcycles, runs the truck's pumps.
Engine 11 arrives first, siren blaring, its red finish polished to a high shine. Crew members race to the back of the store on Pebble Road, before learning they need to get to the front. They scramble to relocate to the front entrance as Engine 10 swings around the southern side of the building.
There, smoke pumps from a loading dock area where store workers often take cigarette breaks. Firefighters pile out and spray water at a covered walkway, which separates the main showroom from an adjoining warehouse packed with couches stacked five high.
'There's a bunch of trash and debris burning alongside the building,' Aytes reports. 'We ain't got in the building. It's right up against the wall.'
As the highest ranking officer on scene, Garvin assumes command. He's a portly, ruddy-faced veteran with short-clipped hair and a gravelly voice. He throws on his protective coat and helmet, but leaves the rest of his gear behind as he marches toward the front door.
Though based at fire headquarters downtown, Garvin knows this store. He spent an hour in it just a week before picking out furniture for a new fire station on Bees Ferry Road. He had also led a team through the building a year earlier to plan how firefighters would battle a blaze there.
Firefighters call these walk-throughs 'pre-plans.' They are supposed to provide crucial information that crews need to know in the event of a fire: the building's layout, potential hazards, the location of exits and hydrants, and the amount of water needed to douse a blaze.
Garvin's plan contains little more than a sketch of the building and some contact numbers. It makes no mention of the sofa store's maze-like placement of furniture or the enormous amount of water that would be needed if this forest of combustible couches caught fire.
The plan also doesn't indicate that a potentially dangerous steel truss system supports the roof over the massive showroom.
The design creates concealed spaces where fire can grow undetected over the heads of firefighters. Intense heat can cause a steel truss to collapse within 20 minutes. In firefighting circles, they call them 'widow-makers.'
Garvin now sizes up the situation and decides to lead two men inside the building to search for fire. He wades in three times, despite federal standards that call for incident commanders to remain outside burning buildings to coordinate firefighting.
Garvin initially finds no fire, only a few puffs of smoke near the back ceiling tiles, which are suspended from the steel truss. He concludes that the showroom is safe.
The department has a thermal imaging camera available that can 'see' heat through walls and ceilings and pinpoint fire inside. But it sits unused in the cab of a fire truck outside.
From inside the building, Garvin opens a rear door to the dock area between the showroom and warehouse. The fire immediately pulls the door from his hands as it sucks in fresh oxygen like a flue opening on a chimney. He can't shut it. Flames billow inside the showroom.
'I got fire in the rear of the building,' Garvin radios to Aytes. 'It's walking its way on into the showroom.'
Six minutes have passed since the first report of fire.
Garvin calls for a team with 1 1/2-inch-diameter hose to travel deep into the back of the store to begin battling the fire from inside. The fire grows. He calls in a second team with a larger, 2 1/2-inch-diameter hose line.
Among the first teams in the building are the men from Ladder 5 - French, Thompson and Kelsey. They rush in and start spraying water on the spreading blaze.
Engines 16 and 19 arrive at the store from their station house on Ashley Hall Plantation Road. Engine 16 carries firefighter Melvin Champaign, an Army veteran and aspiring pastor; Capt. Mike Benke, a devoted family man and NASCAR fan; and engineer Art Wittner, an easy-going veteran with a soft smile and a firm handshake.
On Engine 19: Capt. Billy Hutchinson, a sports enthusiast who cuts friends' hair at $2 a head; James 'Earl' Drayton, whose 32 years with the department earned him the nickname 'old school;' and Brad Baity, a soft-spoken engineer known for his computer skills.
The crews from Engines 16 and 19 join the men of Ladder 5 inside. Also on hand is a crew from Station 15 on the peninsula that includes firefighter Mike Walker and Capt. Louis Mulkey, who coaches athletes at Summerville High School in his spare time.
Smoke grows thicker inside the building, but Garvin still feels certain that his men have the fire under control.
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas pulls into the parking lot outside and grabs his gear from the back of his red Chevy Tahoe. He'd been returning from dinner with his wife, Carol, when the call came in. He leaves her sitting in the Tahoe as he dons his white chief's helmet and hustles toward the store, his suspenders swinging loose from his waist. He's tall and lanky, a fast-talking man with a Lowcountry drawl as thick as pluff mud.
Thomas barks commands into the radio - redeploying trucks, monitoring water supplies, coordinating incoming aid and checking the status of other station houses around the city. Under the city's command system, many of these tasks should be farmed out to other commanders on the scene so the chief can focus on the big picture. But Thomas is all over the radio, juggling fire commands and myriad other tasks at once.
Off-duty firefighters show up as the fire grows. Several hurry in from a memorial golf tournament at Shadowmoss Plantation for Shane Albers, a Charleston firefighter who died in a February traffic accident. Some have no more protection than the shorts and shirts they wore golfing.
Off-duty firefighter David Fleming is one of the lucky ones. He has his gear stashed in his car as he races toward the cloud of smoke looming on the horizon. He steers around a clot of traffic on Wappoo Road, driving on the wrong side of the road until he reaches a police barricade. Fleming flashes his badge and an officer waves him through.
His first thought as he looks at the burning store: I've got to get inside. The Charleston Fire Department prides itself on aggressive tactics. No one wants to be the man left outside a burning building. You get there quickly, get inside and 'put the wet stuff on the red stuff.'
Before Fleming can get in, another firefighter presses him into service connecting a hose to a ladder truck that needs water.
Radios hum with firefighters' demands for more water pressure. They can't get enough water on the fire to get it under control. The department uses supply hoses that are smaller than those used by most departments. To make matters worse, cars keep driving over the hoses.
Inside the store, the fire grows in intensity as it looks for oxygen. Heat builds in the steel truss over the firefighters' heads.
Twelve minutes have passed since the first report of fire.
As calls for water multiply, more crews speed to the scene, including the crew of Engine 6, based downtown on Cannon Street.
A few blocks from the sofa store, five firefighters from the neighboring St. Andrews Fire Department eat dinner at the China Gourmet on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard, celebrating the 32nd birthday of firefighter Steven Beasley.
A friend calls St. Andrews Capt. Morris Sills and tells him about the blaze. He looks outside and sees a plume of black smoke billowing over Savannah Highway. Sills calls his dispatcher and says he plans to head over there with an engine and a rescue truck to see what's happening. 'It looks pretty big,' he says.
The St. Andrews crew arrives at the store at 7:22 p.m. and drives to the side near the loading dock, where Charleston firefighters struggle to contain the fire. Thomas tells the St. Andrews crew to move to the back of the warehouse, along Pebble Road, and battle the fire from there. Sills radios his station for more help.
Ronnie Jenkins stands on a john boat in his back yard, watching as firefighters take their positions along the rear of the warehouse.
His Pebble Road home is just 12 feet from the building.
He hears the crackle of flames. The heat stings his face and arms.
'Do I need to evacuate?' Jenkins asks a firefighter who seems to be in charge. The firefighter shakes his head and tells Jenkins he will be fine.
Jenkins looks to his home, where his 6-year-old daughter plays in the tub during her nightly bath. He hopes the fireman is right.
Just yards away, inside the warehouse, sofa store repairman Jonathan Tyrrell III crawls on his belly and gasps for air as black smoke curls above him. Flames block the only door to the tiny workroom where he had been working alone when the fire broke out.
He's trapped, and no one knows he's there. His throat burning from the heat, he frantically stabs at the buttons on his cell phone, trying to dial 911. The metal building makes it difficult for his phone to pick up a signal.
Tyrrell's call finally goes through. Eighteen minutes have passed since the first report of fire.
'Please get some help for me,' Tyrrell whimpers. 'I've got a wife and kids.'
'We'll get you there buddy,' the dispatcher coaxes. 'Just hang in there. Stay low for me.'
Tyrrell pounds the metal wall with a hammer to help his rescuers find him. But the sound is a faint ping amid the sirens and clamor outside.
'Just keep beatin', keep beatin',' the dispatcher encourages. 'They are going to get you out of there.'
Beasley and fellow St. Andrews firefighter Daniel Bilton hear about Tyrrell from a police officer and run toward the back of the building. Along the way they meet up with Garvin, who also has heard the call and races to help.
Axes in hand, Beasley and Bilton chop through a weathered wooden fence along the property line and listen. Faint clanking comes from behind a piece of rippled metal wall where Tyrrell furiously hammers for his life.
Beasley and Bilton slam their axes into the metal siding and carve out a small, jagged hole. Tyrrell, gagging, appears through a cloud of black smoke and wriggles through the small opening. The firemen yank him from the hole and whisk him to paramedics waiting in front of the store.
Twenty-three minutes have elapsed since the initial report of fire. For the men inside, the air in their tanks is running dangerously low.
Conditions inside the sofa store have deteriorated rapidly. Dense smoke roils through the showroom, blotting out light. The air becomes toxic, the heat intense.
More than a dozen firefighters fan out through the coal-black smoke inside. They struggle to hold the fire back and keep their bearings in the store's maze-like layout.
At every step they confront a jumble of sofas, beds and other furniture. Hazy sunshine still lights the sky outside. Inside, it's as dark as midnight.
Splintered transmissions sputter over the radio. Shouts, moans, unintelligible words.
The sound of muffled, heavy breathing breaks in. Air hisses as a voice shouts from behind a face mask: 'Lost connection with the hose!'
Firefighters know that's bad news. They train to follow their hoses to safety if they become disoriented in a fire. The hoses snake back toward the trucks - the way home.
The call no firefighter ever wants to hear comes over the radio.
'Mayday!' a garbled voice from inside cries out.
Then a firefighter radios his dying wish to Chief Thomas:
'Car One. Please tell my wife that ... I love you.'
Thomas yells for everyone to stay off the radio, his only link to the men fighting the fire. A voice from inside the store cuts in, reciting the end of a prayer:
'In Jesus' name, amen.'
Thomas doesn't know who sounded the mayday. He's not sure who is in the building. But inside, firefighters are dying.
On a large fire scene, commanders are taught to conduct periodic radio checks on their men to determine their whereabouts.
Twenty-four minutes into the fire, no one is sure how many firefighters remain inside the building or who they are.
Thomas screams into the radio to his commanders: 'Is everybody out where you at?'
Garvin barks: 'No sir, we still got guys in there.'
In a shrill voice, Thomas shouts again for radio silence. 'You need to make sure all your people are accounted for.'
Inside, Engine 15's Mike Walker
thrashes through the smoke and furniture looking for a way out. He spots another firefighter's flashing emergency beacon and follows the light toward the front of the store.
He pounds the inside of a showroom window. Suddenly it smashes and another firefighter pulls him to safety. As he comes out, others look for a way in, still hoping to rescue those in trouble.
A dispatcher radios Thomas: 'Car One, the engineer of Ladder 5's emergency button has been activated.'
It's Mike French. They try to reach him by radio. No answer.
Someone orders two firefighters to break out windows along the front of the store. The fire inside sucks fresh air in through the jagged openings as shattered glass tinkles to the pavement. Thick brown and gray smoke boils from the building and curls over the soot-stained facade.
Mulkey, Walker's captain from Engine 15, is among those unaccounted for. They can't raise him on the radio.
Alarm devices attached to the firefighters' air packs wail through the darkness, indicating firefighters are in trouble. The alarms are designed to go off automatically if a firefighter goes down for 24 seconds or longer.
Word spreads quickly about Mulkey, a popular member of the department. Everyone wants to help.
joins some other men trying to chop a large hole in the side of the building to let out smoke and create a pathway in for water. He's hoping they can get to Mulkey as well. He plants his axe in the siding again and again, adrenalin surging through his system.
He doesn't realize he's hurt until he sees blood splatter from his hand. He looks down. His thumb dangles from ragged flesh. His day is done.
Around the corner, the smoke rolling from the front of the building now looks like thick, black cotton candy, a sign that the showroom is becoming superheated and could spontaneously ignite.
A hose line, swollen with water, snakes through the front door. Beasley grabs hold of the line and follows it into the building. Bilton grips Beasley's jacket with one hand and sweeps the air with the other, searching for some sign of the fallen. They can see only a foot beyond their faces.
About 20 yards in they come upon a Charleston firefighter. The man kneels on the floor, screaming for help.
Beasley grabs the firefighter's leg and pulls. Bilton turns to lead them out, following the hose line as he clutches Beasley's coat and helps pull him along. The heat envelops them.
Outside the building, Thomas keeps calling on his radio for Mulkey. 'Car One to the captain on 15 or anybody on 15.'
Chief Thomas screams into his radio: 'Everybody abandon the building!'
Around back, Sills, the St. Andrews captain, has also ordered his men from the building. He watches the fire in awe. The fire is so hot the metal siding literally glows red, translucent.
At about 7:41 p.m., the showroom and its contents explode into flames.
Nearing the front door, Beasley steals a backward glance as tendrils of fire leap from one couch to the next in succession. Pop! Pop! Pop! A tidal wave of flame roars through the room and belches from the front windows.
Bilton and Beasley tumble from the store into the parking lot. Steam pours from Beasley's singed gear as he looks around. The firefighter they were trying to save is gone, lost somewhere in the inferno.
'I want everybody out of the building!' Thomas shouts again. 'We still can't find the captain of 15!'
Firefighters keep arriving, parking wherever they can. They scurry about, using whatever hose they can get their hands on to spray water on the fire.
Some even try to hold back flames with small, red hoses normally reserved for tiny trash fires.
Some firefighters wander close to the flames with no helmets, air packs, or protective gear. Off-duty men in shorts and sandals cart hoses. Voices step all over one another on the radio. Still the calls come for more water pressure.
One firefighter grumbles in frustration: 'If we can get these damn cops to stop those guys from running over our supply lines - that's what killing us.'
Firefighters watch helplessly as the flames roar from the building, white-hot.
Still, no one gives up. The men inside are family, brothers. No one is willing to leave them behind.
Charleston Battalion Chief Robert O'Donald makes one last attempt to charge the flames and get inside to save his friends. He reels back, his hands burned. He stumbles into the parking lot, grimaces and hurls a heavy bag into the air in frustration.
It's too late.
The steel beams in the roof twist, sag and collapse in a crush of smoke and flames.
How many are still inside? No one knows.
The list of the missing slowly takes shape as the night wears on. Two names. Then four.
A firefighter roams the parking lot with a yellow legal pad, his assignment to record the names of the living.
Thomas radios a ladder truck. Are Thompson and Frenchie up in the bucket?
Calls from friends and family flood the dispatcher center. Is my son among them? My husband?
In a nearby hospital, Fleming, the injured firefighter, watches television news accounts of the fire while doctors treat his hand. He keeps hoping that commanders have mistakenly counted him among the missing. That would mean one less guy lost in that building. A call to a fire dispatcher crushes that hope. No, Fleming is told, they know where you are.
The final count comes after midnight. Nine bodies lie among the smoking ruins. Mike French, Louis Mulkey, Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton, Billy Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Brandon Thompson.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Ron Menchaca at 937-5724 or email@example.com.