Routley said of Mayor Joe Riley in an e-mail

Almost from the outset of their investigation three years ago, a group of experts concluded that Charleston's Fire Department was a mess and that its chief needed to go for the organization to rise from "the dark ages."

That theme emerges in hundreds of newly released e-mails from consultant Gordon Routley and his team of fire experts, who were paid $284,000 by the city to investigate the deadly Sofa Super Store blaze and recommend changes.

The six-member team went to great lengths to publicly maintain an air of neutrality while probing the blaze that killed nine firefighters in June 2007. But in private e-mails, they shared a wealth of criticism and complaints about the Fire Department's leadership, the slow pace of change and perceived efforts by Mayor Joe Riley to politically "spin" their work.

"He is a master old southern politician," Routley said of Riley in an October 2007 e-mail, "and he is working hard to make something ugly smell like a rose."

The correspondence, which spans a 14-month period, provides fresh insight into the team's investigation and the challenges it faced. The messages, obtained by the city in connection with ongoing lawsuits surrounding the fire, were released to The Post and Courier in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The messages show some team members had strong opinions early on that the Fire Department was mired in the past and that then-Fire Chief Rusty Thomas was an impediment to progress. They became increasingly frustrated with Riley, as well, over his unwavering loyalty to Thomas and his steadfast defense of the department's antiquated tactics.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Riley kept insisting that the chief and his department were among the best in the country and that the fire casualties were the result of a "perfect storm" event, not outdated tactics, equipment and training. Team members strongly disagreed, e-mails show.

"I do not believe that I have to state my overwhelming support for ousting the leadership (and I use that term lightly) of the CFD," panel member Brian Crawford wrote to his colleagues in December 2007. "You can't expect a dysfunctional child to improve himself -- it is literally and figuratively impossible."

Last week, Riley said he found the snide, cynical and sarcastic tone of the e-mails disappointing, surprising and at odds with the candid professionalism shown in the team's face-to-face dealings with the city. He said the messages show the team arrived with preconceived notions about the fire that clouded its mission.

"It was like unbeknownst to us they had an ax to grind and they kept that ax well hidden during the process," he said.

Riley and other city officials said they were also troubled by messages that showed the team had a much cozier working relationship with federal investigators than the city had been led to believe, serving almost as "dual agents" while on the city's payroll.

Routley said the e-mails were never intended for public consumption and it's unfortunate if anyone was offended, but he stands behind his team's work and findings. "There was no conspiracy. I don't have anything to hide," he said. "I don't think there is anything there that would cause me regret or make me think we did anything other than a thorough and impressive job."

Opportunity knocks

The Routley team was handpicked by the city, an "all-star" group of fire professionals that would probe the worst single loss of firefighters since the 9/11 terror attack. The team's work led to more than $8 million in upgrades to the Charleston Fire Department and produced exhaustive reports that have become staple reading in fire stations across the land.

Routley's involvement didn't happen by chance. While the fire site was still smoldering, the retired Louisiana fire chief put the word out that he was interested in helping with a possible investigation of the tragedy.

On June 19, 2007, the day after the fire, Routley dashed off an e-mail to veteran Ohio commander Billy Goldfeder, with whom he served on a national task force probing firefighter fatalities for larger safety lessons. Routley said he had been studying aerial photos of the fire site and could be en route to Charleston in a couple of hours, if needed. "It's a trap," he said about the sofa store. "... Loaded with sofas ... and no sprinklers?"

In a July 2, 2007, e-mail to Dave Statter, who writes an influential fire service blog, Routley said the blaze bore similarities to other fires around the country where commanders lost sight of deteriorating conditions and failed to recognize risks. He also told Statter he had heard Riley was ordering firefighters not to talk with state or federal investigators.

"Probably he thinks they are out to get him and the chief, so they are adopting a defensive posture," Routley said. "That will only make it more difficult to get the facts out ... and more ugly when they do come out."

Later that month, Routley was selected to serve on a city task force formed to investigate the fire. He told fellow team member Crawford it was an opportunity to "help Charleston SC escape from the dark ages."

Retired Arizona Fire Chief Dennis Compton was picked to head the task force, but he bailed before his appointment was announced, citing concerns over the panel's direction, oversight and credibility. Routley's e-mails show Compton grew worried about the "independence and transparency" of the process after speaking with the mayor's office.

The city quickly tapped Routley to replace him. Routley told his new team he had addressed Compton's "anxieties" and been assured city officials would not interfere with the panel's independence. An official announcement was made in early August 2007, and the panel quickly began mapping out assignments.

A race to change

As the team prepared for its first visit to Charleston, the city released copies of radio transmissions from the deadly fire in response to FOIA requests from The Post and Courier and others. The tapes revealed frantic, overwhelmed firefighters struggling with low water pressure and confusion about who was still in the burning structure and who had escaped. Routley and others were horrified by what they heard.

"Have you listened to the tape yet?" Routley said in an Aug. 10, 2007, e-mail to Goldfeder. "It's worse than my worst nightmare could have predicted."

The following day, Routley alerted his team that the disturbing tapes had prompted the mayor to request "remedial actions" that could quickly be put into place to address urgent problems in the Fire Department. Routley told them they also needed to figure out just who in the department was capable of making "rapid and radical change."

"They missed out on about 40 years of fire service evolution," Routley wrote to a friend on Aug. 12, 2007, "and we need to figure out how to close the gap as fast as possible, while dealing with all of the emotional baggage, personal loyalties and other issues."

Less than a week into their first visit, the team issued sweeping recommendations to address numerous deficiencies in the Fire Department, including staffing shortages, lax safety enforcement and failure to keep pace with modern national firefighting techniques. The list was well-received. Even Thomas, who consistently defended Charleston's way of doing things, endorsed the recommendations.

Privately, however, the team began discussing the need for new leadership to make the recommendations a reality. In an Aug. 29, 2007, e-mail, Routley told his team Riley had inquired about hiring someone, on an interim basis, as a "change-implementation agent." Routley supported the idea.

Crawford questioned whether that meant suspending Thomas or putting him on administrative leave. "I like the idea, but with Chief Thomas completely out of the way," he wrote. "This would send a clear and decisive message to the membership and quiet some of the criticism the mayor is receiving."

Fellow panel member Mike Chiaramonte agreed it would be best for Thomas to take a leave of absence, but he worried the team would be viewed as an "ax squad" for the mayor's political gain.

'Rotating bald tires'

Thomas stayed, and the city instead appointed two veteran commanders from within the department to help shepherd the changes. Meanwhile, the team got down to work on a deeper analysis of the Fire Department, developing a top-to-bottom overhaul. E-mails show they fretted over the pace of change, what items to prioritize and how to prepare the city for the potential cost.

In a September 2007 e-mail, Routley questioned whether they should propose management changes or wait for "guys who should be going" to "head for the exits on their own." "We could waste a lot of time and effort restructuring around the guys who can't be saved (a.k.a. rotating bald tires)."

He also cautioned the team to make its report come across as "best advice" rather than heavy-handed directives. "It should look like we are doing everything possible to help them recognize and solve their problems, not beat them over their hard heads."

In the early going, the team's relationship with the city seemed cordial -- almost collegial -- as they went about their tasks. But as time passed, that relationship began to fray. The team became increasingly suspicious of the city's motives and Riley's continued defense of Thomas, particularly after the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration slammed the Fire Department on Sept. 20, 2007, for its handling of the sofa store blaze.

Chiaramonte told his teammates that the mayor "publicly put both feet in his mouth" with his heated response to the OSHA findings, but pointed out that Riley also publicly pledged to enact all of the team's recommendations. "I hope he has a great deal of money," Chiaramonte stated. "It is time for him to put up or shut up."

Routley urged his team to stay on target with their investigation and not be distracted by the city's "very predictable" response to the OSHA violations. "When our report on the investigation comes out, they will wish the OSHA guys would come back and throw another nerf ball at them."

Losing faith

The team was uncovering evidence of a Fire Department woefully behind the times and completely unprepared to handle an inferno like the Sofa Super Store blaze. In an Oct. 4, 2007, e-mail, Routley confided to Goldfeder that the deeper the team dug, "we discover even more ways of screwing up a fire suppression event -- at every level. It's absolutely amazing."

On Oct. 15, 2007, the team delivered its first report, a manifesto for change that touched on virtually every area of the Fire Department's management, organization and procedures. Routley told a friend that Riley's "pure faith" in the department took a "bad hit" when its shortcomings were explained to him.

To his team, Routley expressed strong doubts about the ability of Thomas and the department's "old guard" to rebuild the organization, saying they "really do not understand many of the recommendations." He said Riley seemed sincere about moving forward, but a pending election prevented him from admitting just how bad things really were.

"Three weeks before an election, he is not going to come out and say 'I just found out that the CFD was totally screwed up, so disregard everything I have said up until now," Routley stated. "He has to try to make the best of it."

After the first report was delivered, the team tried to tread lightly as it went about making sure the recommendations were enacted, not wanting to push too hard and be seen as "enemy agents." E-mails show they were also leery about going after the department's leadership without liability insurance in place to protect them from lawsuits. But their frustration clearly grew as months passed without the degree of change they had anticipated.

In a December 2007 e-mail, Routley groused that Thomas and Assistant Chief Robert O'Donald had rebuffed the team's offers to help and that the department "was not going to get fixed as long as they are in control." He suggested that pursuing a long range plan was a waste of time without new leaders. He recommended the team play its "trump cards" and push the city to find someone from outside.

The e-mails do not reveal what happened as a result. Routley recalled last week his team approached Riley with its concerns about the Fire's Department leadership but the mayor told them he wasn't interested in a change.

The team returned to work, but its dissatisfaction remained. As they completed their final report, team members complained among themselves that city fire officials were keeping them in the dark and playing "a shell game" with the panel's recommendations.

Take a stand

As the final report's release neared in May 2008, the team ran into problems with City Hall as well. City attorneys objected to proposed language in a draft that stated the nine firefighters would not have died if the sofa store blaze had been handled "in accordance with widely accepted fire service principles and practices." The city's lawyers complained the team was editorializing outside the bounds of its contract.

In a May 1, 2008 e-mail to the team, Routley said he was prepared to take a stand on the issue and let the city explain why the team's report would not be issued. Some panel members objected to changing the language, while others thought the report clearly drove home the intended point whether the sentence was removed or not. Team member Kevin Roche stated he thought the sentence was a "red herring to draw attention."

"I understand the concern over this statement," team member Tim Sendelbach replied. "But I'm more concerned with their defensive posture towards the panel. I'm not willing to support any form of cover-up or white wash concerning fault and/or responsibility."

On May 14, 2008, Thomas announced his retirement from the Fire Department. The following day, the panel released a blistering report that described the Fire Department as "completely unprepared" to handle the sofa store blaze. The report also clearly stated the department failed to follow federal guidelines and modern techniques, exposing firefighters to "excessive risks" and "a critically dangerous situation."

Chiaramonte put it even more bluntly in a May 19, 2008 e-mail to Goldfeder: "DAMN IT. This did not have to happen."

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or gsmith@postandcourier.com.