Firefighter lifeline

Firefighters and others stand outside the destroyed Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway in West Ashley the night of June 18, 2007. The Charleston Firefighter Support Team has helped about 200 firefighters and family members deal with the aftermath of tha

John Winn wasn't much of a drinker before nine of his fellow Charleston firefighters died in the Sofa Super Store fire in June 2007. But after the blaze, he leaned hard on the bottle to chase away grief, pain and brutal images that clung to him from that night.

Winn, a battalion chief with 33 years on the job, spent his days off in a blurry haze as he drowned his anguish in liter after liter of Crown Royal.

He was on a downward spiral when he finally sought help from the Charleston Firefighter Support Team, which got Winn into alcohol treatment and counseled him about the issues driving his drinking. Now sober for three months, Winn does peer outreach for the team, helping others get help to cope with the fire's fallout and other stresses. So far, he's referred 20 people to the program.

"I think a lot of guys had the same attitude I used to have: You can fix it by yourself. But you can't fix it by yourself," Winn said. "If it wasn't for this program, I wouldn't be here today. I was that close to losing everything I had worked hard for over the years."

In nearly three years since the deadly fire at the West Ashley furniture outlet, about 200 firefighters and their family members have turned to the support team for counseling. Backers say the program provides critical help and puts the city on the leading edge of a national movement to promote better physical and emotional well-being in the fire service.

Charleston Fire Chief Thomas Carr said the toll of the sofa store blaze continues to reverberate through the fire department, its embers freshly stoked with each new development, from the filing of lawsuits to debates about the criminal investigation into the tragedy. The third anniversary of the fire is fast approaching and the final federal study of the blaze is coming due. These are sure to trigger memories and emotions, he said.

"This is tough stuff for a fire department," said Carr, who joined the department a year after the blaze.

Some 37 firefighters have filed worker's compensation claims since the sofa store fire, stating that they have post traumatic stress disorder, said Mark Ruppel, the fire department's public information officer. Some are back at work, some have retired and others are still negotiating their claims. Of the 32 firefighters who have retired since the blaze, 12 went out on disability claims, he said.

Carr said the counseling program provides a critical service that should remain in place indefinitely. He said it helps many firefighters stay mentally fit, work through the problems they are encountering and remain productive. "I'd like to consider the service permanent," he said.

The Charleston Firefighter Support Team has an annual budget of about $320,000, which pays for office space in West Ashley and the services of two retired firefighters who do peer outreach, three clinical counselors and one part-time psychologist.

The city of Charleston funds the program, which is a collaborative effort between the South Carolina State Firefighters' Association and the state Department of Mental Health.

Though times are tight for local governments, Mayor Joe Riley has been a staunch supporter of the program, and City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, who heads the Public Safety Committee, hasn't heard complaints about the expense.

"There are places where funding is well-spent, and I think this is one of those places," she said. "If it gives a firefighter the ability and tools to deal with bad things in his life and allows him to be a functioning member of the department and a functioning human being to his family, then that's priceless."

Carr said people heal at different paces, and new people are coming forward for help all the time. New York's firefighter support program is still getting new requests for help nine years after 9/11, officials said.

Gerald Mishoe, a retired North Charleston firefighter who heads the support team, said the group was initially responding to "very acute needs" brought on by the fire. Now it is dealing with a variety of issues, from changes to the department and the pressure of new training requirements to stresses brought on by new emergencies.

Just this month, the team rushed to the aid of a fire crew who tried to save a 22-month-old West Ashley boy who was accidentally run over by a sport-utility vehicle driven by his father. The boy died, and that deeply affected the crew, who had children of their own, Ruppel said.

When the program first started, firefighters from other cities were brought in to serve as peers, but Charleston now has 14 trained peers of its own, including Winn. They come from nearly every rank in the department and have been instrumental in identifying troubled firefighters and helping them get aid, Mishoe said.

Winn said the program has been needed for a long time. For years, he was haunted by memories of a 1982 apartment fire he battled in which an infant died. Other firefighters have similar tales. But for years, they were told by their leaders to bury those emotions and move on, he said.

"We were told to suck it up. 'Just deal with it,' " he said. "But it's very hard to deal with something like that by yourself."

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