Garvin retires early on request

Larry Garvin

Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin, the initial scene commander at the Sofa Super Store blaze where nine firefighters perished, retired from the department Tuesday at the acting chief's request.

"I lost nine of my good friends, and now I feel like I've lost the rest of my family," Garvin said.

"I had really wanted to leave in March of next year," he said. "Chief (Ronnie) Classen asked me to go ahead and retire."

Garvin and former Chief Rusty Thomas, who stepped down in June, have been criticized in reports examining what went wrong at the Sofa Super Store. One former city councilman, Henry Fishburne, called for Garvin to resign last year.

Mayor Joe Riley said Garvin's resignation was unrelated to any criticism of his actions at the Sofa Super Store. "That had nothing to do with it," Riley said.

Riley said he and Classen thought that, as the city searches for a new fire chief, it would help with recruiting to be clear that any new chief will get to choose the department's senior command staff.

All three of the department's assistant chiefs are expected to step down, according to Mark Ruppel, public information officer for the Charleston Fire Department. Garvin was the second of the three to leave.

"The city and the Fire Department are very appreciative of his 35 years of hard work and dedication," Ruppel said.

Assistant Chief Eddie Bath retired three weeks ago, and Garvin retired Tuesday. Classen, who was the other

assistant chief, is serving as interim fire chief and plans to retire after the new chief is announced, Ruppel said.

Classen said battalion chiefs will fill in, as they do when assistant chiefs are on vacation.

"By no means will this impede the day-to-day operations of the Fire Department," Ruppel said.

A new fire chief has not yet been selected, and no announcement is expected until at least the end of September.

Riley began reviewing the first batch of resumes on Friday.

Garvin, a 35-year veteran, said he cries every day about the men who died in the Sofa Super Store fire.

"I am sure there are people out there who blame me personally," he said Tuesday.

"When I went in that building — and I went in three times — the flames were in the back, and you could have bought furniture in there," he said. "When things went bad, I was around back, and it all went bad very fast."

The "phase two" report on the fire commissioned by the city said Garvin and Thomas failed to follow nationally recognized standards that call for commanders to stay put so they can monitor changing fire conditions and coordinate manpower and equipment.

At the fire, Garvin had ordered two teams with hoses into the sofa showroom to fight what he thought was a small fire, then Garvin joined a group of St. Andrews firefighters in rescuing store employee Jonathan Tyrrell, who was trapped in a warehouse outbuilding that had filling with smoke.

They hacked through a metal wall to save him, and when Garvin returned to the front of the fire scene, the sofa showroom had become an inferno.

"It was just by the grace of God that I was not in there with them," he said.

Tyrrell defended Garvin's actions after the city report was released in May.

"I don't know about incident command and posts and 'this person was supposed to be here' or 'this person should have been there' — I don't know any of that," Tyrrell said. "But he wasn't leaving his post to go get a drink. He was going to help somebody."