Tapes reveal chaotic scene at fatal fire

As smoke and flames overcame them, trapped Charleston-area firefighters cried for help, prayed to God and said goodbye to loved ones while the ceiling above them in the Sofa Super Store warped and sagged toward collapse.

Radio transmissions from the deadly fire on June 18 reveal how the blaze suddenly overwhelmed firefighters as they struggled with low water pressure and confusion about who was still in the burning structure and who had escaped.

The city released the transmissions Friday in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from The Post and Courier and others.

The recordings reveal moments of anguish, chaos and courage as firefighters battled the inferno and searched for the nine men who would perish in its flames.

The transmissions start out calmly, with a dispatcher chuckling at one point as he stumbles over saying Sofa Super Store quickly. But the tone grows ever more serious as the blaze spreads from a dock area into the sprawling Savannah Highway store.

About 20 minutes into the battle, someone radios a muffled report that a firefighter has lost his connection with a hose. Firefighters are trained to follow their hoses out of buildings should they become lost.

Seconds later, a firefighter shouts a garbled "mayday," followed by: "Car One. Please tell my wife that ..."

"Go ahead," comes the reply.

"I love you," the firefighter says, his voice suddenly clear.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas yells for everyone to stay off the radio. Then someone can be heard mumbling the end of a prayer: "In Jesus' name, amen."

Thomas asks seconds later: "Is everybody out where you at?"

Firefighter: "No sir, we still got guys in there."

A firefighter calls a dispatcher with instructions. "Get on the radio, tell the man down to hit his orange (emergency) button so they know who it is. You know what I mean?"

Another dispatcher soon signals that Ladder 5 Engineer Michael French's emergency signal has sounded. Still, no one seems quite sure if it is French who issued the mayday or someone else. Fire commanders are soon trying to find Engine 15 Capt. Louis Mulkey, as well. They try to reach him on the radio. They never receive a reply.

Chaos and confusion

Throughout the transmissions, firefighters call again and again for more water pressure and complain about vehicles running over their supply lines. The scene becomes chaotic and firefighters trample over one another on the radio as they struggle to reach their comrades and figure out who is missing.

As the fire overtakes the building, Thomas repeatedly pleads with his people to stay off the radio and get to safety.

"I want everybody out of the building," he shouts. "We still can't find the captain of 15."

Minutes later, a fire dispatcher sobs as she calls Charleston County Emergency Medical Services for help. "Hey EMS, I'm with the fire department," she says. "We need some more units over at the Sofa Super Store, um, I don't know, we've got a whole unit that is not answering our radios, so we don't know if they're still inside the building or not."

At 7:48 p.m., Thomas asks a dispatcher to notify Charleston Mayor Joe Riley that the department is battling a bad fire at the Sofa Super Store.

Soon, fire commanders from across the Lowcountry are calling the city's dispatch center asking what they can do to help. Several are directed to send trucks and men to stations around the city to cover unprotected areas.

All the while, firefighters continue to call for Mulkey. By night's end, they will find Mulkey and French dead in the smoking wreckage along with Brad Baity, Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, Earl Drayton, Billy Hutchinson III, Mark Kelsey and Brandon Thompson.

Investigations continue

The city withheld the June 18 recordings for weeks, citing ongoing investigations into the blaze. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continues to work with state and local police to determine the cause of the fire, which started in an area where sofa store employees routinely took cigarette breaks.

At an afternoon press conference Friday in City Hall, Riley acknowledged the importance of the tapes to the public's understanding of the fire and efforts to prevent similar tragedies.

Officials offered the families of the fallen nine and city firefighters a chance to listen to the tapes earlier in the day to prepare them for what the public would soon hear as well. "Had we not done this, it would have been insensitive and caused even more distress to these families," Riley said.

Seven of the nine families accepted the city's invitation to listen to the tapes before the public release, Riley said.

Family members gathered at noon behind closed doors at First Baptist Church on Meeting Street to hear a shortened version of the more than eight hours of radio transmissions and phone calls. The full recording contains more than 1,100 audio files and spans from the first call shortly after 7 p.m. to noon the next day.

Firefighters were later given the opportunity to listen to the tape at five fire stations throughout the city.

Roger Yow, who heads the local firefighters' union, said the city should have held off longer on the release out of respect for the colleagues and families of the fallen.

"We feel that the city has released the tapes too early and that it will cause emotional setbacks for the firefighters and the families. You are going to hear guys calling for help, and that's going to hash up a lot of emotions."

Yow said he was surprised by the city's move because his union, which represents about half of the city's firefighters, was not notified in advance.

Thomas said he had listened to the recording a few times. "It's very, very difficult to listen to," he said, his words trailing off.

A number of the communications on the transmissions are unintelligible, and it is difficult to understand some of the firefighters shouting over the wail of sirens and speaking through air masks. Few people are identified by name on the recordings, and the city did not provide a transcript to decipher what is being said.

Riley said the city expects people will have questions about the recordings. He said the city will try to answer those questions as investigators continue to piece together exactly what happened that night.

"We are very confident these investigations ... will make sure that every question that could be asked is answered and that every change that is necessary can and will be implemented."

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Helping families of fallen firefighters

Neighborhood hosts fundraiser:

Regatta on James Island is hosting a fundraiser Aug. 18 to benefit the city of Charleston's Fireman's Fund for the families of the nine firefighters who lost their lives in the Sofa Super Store fire in June.

The public in invited to participate 10 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Regatta community clubhouse. WEZL radio station will host a live remote at the site from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. A donation table will be active throughout the day.

Regatta on James Island is located on Central Park Road, just off Folly Road.

For more information, go to www.ownregatta.com.

Prudential raises $61,800: The staff and real estate agents of the region's largest real estate agency, as well as the franchise itself, contributed $61,800 to the city of Charleston Firemen's Fund to help the families of the nine firefighters who died in the June 18 blaze at a West Ashley sofa store.

Charleston-based Prudential Carolina Real Estate started a fundraising drive the day after the fire. The company presented a check late last month, Chief Executive Patty Scarafile said. The agency's 970 agents and about 100 employees raised funds or individually made contributions. Then the agency matched the total, Scarafile said.

'We feel like as a organization, we are fortunate to have an integral role in the community,' Scarafile said.

Prudential has had similar fundraisers, including after the Sept. 11, 2001, bombings at the World Trade Center in New York. The agency has a charitable contributions committee than makes decisions on donations and fundraisers, Scarafile said.

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Firefighters' final words

The families of six of the dead firefighters discussed the tapes after hearing them. Two families declined to comment and one couldn't reached. Here's what some of the families had to say:

Families each were taken to individual rooms. Firefighter friends brought Christine Prevatte, Mark Kelsey's companion, to hear the tapes. The mood was quiet but not somber, she said. She heard his voice once, crushingly.

'We cried and we listened to it. It was very hard,' she said. 'It was something we had to do. It's hopefully going to help us get a little closure. It's going to help us deal with our grief.'

Randy Hutchinson, brother of Capt. Billy Hutchinson III, found the tapes helpful, especially in letting him follow the movement of the officers and men up to - and then immediately after - the fatal eruption of flame from overhead.

As a former fireman, he understood the department's radio language and how the fire was being tackled.

'The guys that died, they didn't have any inclination of what was going on, on the outside' of the building, he said.

From the tone of some of the chatter, Hutchinson learned 'you have some excitable guys. Mainly the calm guys are the ones in route.'

There also was some discussion that lack of water was becoming an issue, he remembered.

Hutchinson heard his brother's voice twice on the tape, once to say he was '10-8,' meaning he was dispatched and leaving Station 19, and another to say he was '10-97,' meaning he'd arrived on the scene.

Louis Mulkey's family decided not to listen to the tapes after asking a firefighter friend to listen and tell them if there was something they should hear. Ovie Mulkey, his

father, said most of it isn't understandable. One firefighter is heard saying a prayer; another giving a 'mayday.' Their son isn't heard.

'There was no way I was going to listen to that tape,' Ovie Mulkey said. He compared it to listening to terrorized voices in an airplane crash. 'It shouldn't be made public. It has nothing to do with the investigation. Every bit of it is private. It's ghoulish.'

Firefighter Melvin Champaign's family did not listen to the tapes.

The family of Engineer Brad Baity has declined requests for interviews.

Kim Benke, widow of Capt. Mike Benke, said she had listened to the tapes. She declined comment.

Staff writers Tony Bartelme and Schuyler Kropf contributed to this report.