It started as a routine call. But in a blurry instant on June 18, a small trash fire spiraled into an inferno that claimed the lives of nine Charleston firefighters.

The deadly blaze at the Sofa Super Store left a city shaken to its core from a loss that came out of nowhere on a lazy Lowcountry night.

As the sun rose over the smoking tangle of concrete and metal, the nation turned its eyes to the Holy City and watched the community grieve. Solemn officials called the blaze the nation's deadliest firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001.

Burly firefighters hugged and cried. City leaders choked back tears. From across the nation, more than 10,000 people came to pay tribute at a moving memorial service. Hundreds more visited the ruins to say prayers, deposit flowers or light candles in remembrance.

Then, hard questions came. Why were so many men sent into harm's way? Could their deaths have been prevented?

As federal and state investigators probed the incident, critics assailed the fire department's leadership, training, equipment and proud tradition of aggressive firefighting.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas and Mayor Joe Riley initially defended the department's tactics, but later embraced recommendations for widespread change put forth by a city-appointed panel of fire experts. Riley pledged to make Charleston's fire department a national model.

Charleston's efforts helped convince the state to reduce penalties levied against the city for alleged safety violations at the fire scene.

But the final chapter in the tragedy has yet to be written. Police have not completed a criminal investigation into the blaze, and federal agencies also are working on various critiques and studies of the fire.