Union to fight for report's release
The nation's largest firefighters union pledged Monday to fight Charleston Mayor Joe Riley's decision to delay the release of an investigative report detailing how nine city firefighters died in last year's Sofa Super Store blaze.
Local union leaders are rallying members and the public to descend on tonight's City Council meeting to demand city leaders immediately release the findings of a city-appointed consulting panel. The report, expected to include a detailed narrative of the department's response to the fire, had been expected this week.
But Riley announced late Friday that he won't allow the report to become public until two federal agencies also probing the blaze have released their findings. At least one of those federal reports could be three to four months from completion.
International Association of Fire Fighters General President Harold Schaitberger accused Riley of orchestrating a "cover-up" that endangers firefighters' lives. Schaitberger said the union plans to appeal to political leaders and the public to bring pressure on the mayor. The union also is mulling legal action, he said.
Roger Yow, a former Fire Department captain and head of the local union that represents about half of the city's 250 firefighters, said the delay is a stalling tactic to stave off criticism of the department's handling of the fatal June 18 blaze. "There is just no excuse for what Mayor Riley has done. They don't want the truth to come out."
Yow and Schaitberger planned to run an ad in today's newspaper calling on City Council and residents to demand that Riley release the report.
Riley said he appreciates the concerns of the union leaders but that he thinks delaying the report is the best way to ensure its accuracy. He spoke with Schaitberger by telephone Monday and said the two respectfully disagreed.
The city held up the report's release, despite assurances from panel leader Gordon Routley that the review is complete.
Panel spokesman Pete Piringer said Monday that the city's decision does not reflect on the thoroughness of the panel's investigation. "We were very comfortable with where we were at. We had planned to present it to the city in its entirety this week."
Billy Goldfeder, a deputy chief in Ohio and a columnist for Firehouse.com, said he is confident the panel's report will be fair, accurate and full of lessons for the fire service as a whole. Unfortunately, the city's decision to delay its release simply raises "more unneeded suspicion as to the genuine intent by the City as far as truly wanting the facts and an unbiased report."
Yow said he expects a large turnout of firefighters and citizens to appeal directly to City Council tonight for the report's release.
The Rev. Jimmy Gallant, chairman of City Council's public safety committee, said the delay puts the city in a "very suspicious position." He's heard from residents who suspect the mayor and council of tampering with the report. But council members remain in the dark about the probe, despite several requests to the mayor to have the panel update them, he said.
City Councilman Wendell Gilliard said waiting on the federal investigations makes sense because it will ensure the families get correct answers and not painful hearsay. "I think it's best if we all put the families first, the ones who lost their loved ones, and do this thing right."
The city wants to wait on reports from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is examining the factors that led to the firefighters' deaths, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is using computer models to reconstruct the blaze. Routley told The Post and Courier on Friday that the panel already has incorporated those findings into its report.
Riley said the report could be released this summer but he refused to commit to a timetable. "To run the risk of a report that may not be complete would be a mistake," Riley wrote in a memo to City Council explaining his decision.
Fred Blosser, public affairs officer for NIOSH, said Monday that his agency's report is three to four months from completion. "It all depends on the complexity of the investigation. They always take several months. I don't think a year is unusual."