Council backs loan to buy fire site

Charleston City Council gave final approval Tuesday to Mayor Joe Riley's plan to borrow $1,875,000 and buy the Sofa Super Store site.

The land on Savannah Highway, where nine city firefighters died in the line of duty last June, has been called "sacred ground" by Riley and others, and would be used for a memorial.

The firefighters died battling the June 18 blaze at the Sofa Super Store, where a loading dock fire spread through the building filled with highly combustible sofas. It was the nation's worst loss of firefighters' lives since the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Suggestions for the city's use of the land have included a park, a museum, a fire station or even a church, and the city plans to form a committee to come up with recommendations.

In a 10-2 vote, Councimen Tim Mallard and James Lewis opposed the bond issue and purchase. Councilman Louis Waring was absent, recovering from a broken ankle.

Riley has said he hopes that county, state and federal contributions, along with private donations, will offset much of the city's cost for the purchase.

Just before the final vote to buy the land, Heather Baity, widow of firefighter Brad Baity, urged council members to approve the measure.

"There needs to be something on that site, and it needs to reflect what happened on that site," she said.

Earlier in the council meeting, dozens of city firefighters had packed Council Chambers at City Hall, but most left before the Sofa Super Store vote.

They were at the meeting to protest Riley's decision Friday to indefinitely withhold the results of a city-financed report on the fire, but Riley changed his mind and announced five hours before the council meeting that the report will be released next week.

Several current and former firefighters thanked the mayor for his change of heart during the council meeting, but some expressed impatience that the report has taken so long.

Dot Hutchinson, mother of the late Capt. Billy Hutchinson and herself a retired city firefighter, told Riley she cried all weekend after hearing that the fire report would be delayed.

She was glad she changed his mind but said it seems no one has been held accountable for the deaths of the firefighters and asked when that might change.

"I read in the newspaper that three Mexicans killed a goose west of the Ashley and they were held accountable," Hutchinson said. "They were fired and the company they worked for was fired. Is one goose worth more than nine firefighters?"

She was referring to an incident last month where three workers for the city's Department of Parks, provided by a staffing agency, were seen killing a Canada goose in a city park, and were charged with animal cruelty.