In many respects, the Charleston Fire Department has been preparing for more than a century to battle the blaze that ripped through a historic East Bay Street building early Tuesday.
The department honed its training over decades to meet the challenge of containing fast-moving fires in a densely built downtown packed with unique buildings that sit snug up against one another.
Get in quick. Throw wet stuff on the red stuff. And keep that fire from spreading and taking out a whole block or two of prized real estate.
But look closer and you’ll see the department’s attack on the fire at 213 East Bay St. also demonstrated the fruits of hard lessons learned in the aftermath of the June 2007 Sofa Super Store blaze that killed nine city firefighters.
While firefighters hit the building fast and hard Tuesday, they did so with a coordinated plan, with the aid of other area departments and with an eye toward safety that resulted in everyone getting out before things got bad, officials said.
“We always try to strike a balance,” Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack said. “And this was a very well-run fire.”
Mayor Joe Riley was even more effusive, saying fire crews did an excellent job saving a piece of downtown’s rich fabric without incurring a single injury or allowing the fire to spread to neighboring properties.
“It was a terrible fire,” Riley said. “They really did an amazing job.”
The fire shut down a stretch of East Bay Street in the heart of the tourist district for much of the day. It also kept neighboring tenants out of their offices, apartments and businesses.
Its cause remains a mystery for now. Fire officials suspended their investigation in the afternoon due to safety and structural concerns with the building, Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh said.
Flames in the dark
The call came in around 1 a.m., with smoke curling from the salmon-colored, two-story building that houses four clubs — Light, Squeeze, The Brick and The Speakeasy.
Fire crews were on the scene within four minutes and were soon joined by a small army of reinforcements, Brack said.
Automatic mutual aid was one of the improvements introduced after the Sofa Super Store fire, and crews from area fire departments now regularly train together and respond to each other’s calls as a matter of course, with all operating from the same playbook.
On Tuesday, that meant some 25 trucks arrived on the scene, with as many as 75 firefighters from Charleston, North Charleston, James Island and St. Andrews on hand to extinguish the blaze, Brack said,
The initial crews raced to the second floor to find the source of the fire while other arriving crews set up strategically around the building. Battalion Chief Jimmy Neilson, a veteran who was very familiar with the building, coordinated the attack, Brack said.
The interior crews battled the fire as long as they could before evacuating for safety reasons around 1:44 a.m., Brack said. Those early efforts helped keep the fire in check, she said.
Onlookers watched in awe as flames chewed through the roof and shot into the darkened sky. In time the roof collapsed, but all crews were at safe distance by then, fighting the blaze from a defensive posture, officials said.
The department’s aggressive approach can be traced to the city’s early days, when fires could sweep through blocks of downtown, claiming hundreds of homes and outbuildings. A large fire in 1861, for example, tore through 540 acres on the peninsula, destroying 575 homes, churches and stores along a mile from East Bay to Gibbes streets.
With buildings butting up against one another, often with shared walls, it became imperative for these “smoke eaters” to get on the scene quickly and knock down a blaze before it could become a conflagration.
The hard-charging ethic, however, came under intense scrutiny after the Sofa Super Store fire, in which nine men were trapped inside when the roof collapsed at the West Ashley furniture outlet. A city-appointed panel of fire experts cited command failures and tactical missteps that exposed firefighters to “excessive and avoidable risks.”
The department has worked hard in recent years to honor its traditions while continuously improving its response and capabilities, as evidenced by Tuesday’s effort, officials said.
“That was good, smart firefighting,” Brack said.
Still, the blaze was a shock for those in and around the building.
John Chandler, 26, awoke to the shrill sound of a fire alarm ringing throughout his apartment over Wet Willie’s bar in the building next door.
Eager to go back to sleep, he said he convinced himself the alarm was only a drill. The urgent pounding on his front door moments later said otherwise.
Firefighters yelled for residents to get out of bed and leave the building. Chandler saw the heavy smoke, roused his roommate and joined other residents evacuating the building,
“It happened really fast,” Chandler said. “I didn’t know what to do. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
Later in the morning, Chandler peered up at the damage from a sidewalk at the corner of East Bay and Cumberland streets.
He stood disheveled, dressed in a dark blue sweatshirt, ripped pajama bottoms and only one shoe. He lost the other in the rush to escape.
Clint Gaskins, owner of Squeeze, watched the action from the steps of the U.S. Customhouse across the street. He had been up all night pondering the demise of his club right before the Cooper River Bridge Run and the start of the busy tourist season.
“I don’t know what to think right now,” he said. “You lose your bar, your job — everything — all in one shot.”
Fire crews remained on the scene for much of the day, dousing hot spots and assessing the damage.
The city also brought in a structural engineer, who determined that the facade of the building, constructed in the 1800s, was structurally sound and will not require demolition, Brack said. The interior appeared to be heavily damaged.
The building, valued in county records at $2.2 million, started out as a three-story structure with a two-story piazza, and the property also included a washhouse and smokehouse, according to Paul Saylors, public programs and research manager for the Preservation Society of Charleston.
The main building, which housed a grocery, was brought down to two stories after the earthquake of 1886, he said.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the joint fire department approach was able to save a piece of the downtown’s rich fabric.×
A total of about 75 firefighters from four jurisdictions battled the East Bay Street on Tuesday.×
Charleston Fire Department crews survey the damage after a fire at 213 East Bay St. Tuesday, April 2, 2013 in Charleston. (Paul Zoeller/postandcourier.com)×
The fire at 213 East Bay St. early Tuesday shut down a stretch of the street in the heart of the tourist district for much of the day.×