Riley blames store owner

In a news conference at City Hall on Wednesday, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley speaks about the retirement of Fire Chief Rusty Thomas.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley blames Sofa Super Store owner Herb Goldstein for the deaths of nine firefighters and insists that the city and its Fire Department did everything possible to prevent the tragedy on June 18.

Riley said in an interview Friday that illegally built additions compromised the massive building's fire protection and allowed a small outdoor trash fire to quickly race inside a showroom stuffed with flammable furniture.

Asked if he holds Goldstein responsible for the deaths of the firefighters, Riley said, "I do, and I told him that. I told him with our lawyers that 'I just want you to know that we believe that the additions to your building that weren't permitted is the reason that this fire went from a trash fire to this tragic fire,' " he said. "It's his responsibility to get a permit for additions. He is at fault."

Goldstein could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Richard Rosen, said the city's fire and code inspectors had ample opportunities over the years to identify possible hazards or violations in the store, which Goldstein would have readily addressed.

"To blame Herb Goldstein for something nobody saw for over 10 years is not reality. I think it's silly to say that the code violations killed firefighters. I don't think I need to address Joe Riley's motivations. He's a politician."

A 272-page report, released Thursday, from a city-hired panel of experts painted the sprawling furniture store as a deathtrap, with a maze-like layout, improperly stored solvents, padlocked doors and inadequate exits. The report also lays blame on the Fire Department for employing aggressive tactics that exposed firefighters to unnecessary and avoidable risks.

Riley said he is unwilling to make a scapegoat out of Fire Chief Rusty Thomas and other commanders, though the report cited command failures as a predominant factor in the department's unstructured and uncoordinated response to the blaze. On the eve of the report's release, Thomas announced his plan to retire June 27 from the department he has led since 1992.

Riley said he still considers Thomas a "great fire chief," a dedicated, hardworking servant who performed his job to the best of his abilities. "I will not say the chief let us down," he said. "He worked hard and did the best he could."

Timing for retirement

Riley initially insisted that Thomas' abrupt retirement announcement Wednesday was unrelated to the planned release of the fire report the next day.

On Friday Riley changed his account, saying that anticipated criticism in the report played a part in the timing of the announcement. When Thomas expressed his desire to retire, Riley said he suggested that Thomas announce his plans before the report's release.

That way, Thomas would get credit for deciding to retire rather than have people think he was stepping down in response to the report's findings or critics' calls for his ouster, he said.

Rather than focus on mistakes Thomas made during the fire, Riley has emphasized the rapid spread of the fire, the unsafe nature of the building and a mix of other factors that made the blaze into what he has repeatedly described as a "perfect storm" fire.

Gordon Routley, head of the fire report panel, disagreed with that characterization during the same interview Friday with The Post and Courier.

Routley said all of the factors and circumstances at the fire occur regularly at fire scenes across America. "There is a fire like this somewhere in the U.S. every week."

Routley said fire chiefs have a duty to stay abreast of ever-evolving advances in the profession and to learn from mistakes made by other fire departments who have lost firefighters in the line of duty. There is a wealth of knowledge available to fire chiefs through reports, textbooks, conferences, seminars and other avenues, but it is up to chiefs to take advantage of it, he said.

"Unfortunately, Chief Thomas was out of touch with the mainstream of what was going on in the fire service for the last 30 years or so," he said. "It was hard for me to understand how he was unaware of a lot of this or discounted this."

Through a spokesman, Thomas declined to comment Friday. But he told the newspaper after the sofa store blaze that Charleston had its own time-tested ways of fighting fires that suited the city better than anything that could come out of a book.

"I just don't think you get a lot out of reading out of a book," he said. "You can't read out of a book how to put a fire out. You have to go out there and do it, and that's what we do."

The Fire Department long boasted of its Class 1 ranking from the Insurance Services Office, which is used to calculate business and home fire insurance premiums. This gave the community a false sense of security, Routley said.

In reality, he said, the ISO rating is an "antiquated system for looking at fire departments," based mainly on accessibility to water. He said the rating system's usefulness as a measure of a fire department's expertise and capabilities went out of style with disco.

Meanwhile, the Fire Department remained frozen in time, using tactics, equipment and training that were commonplace in the 1970s, when Thomas joined the department, Routley said. The Fire Department clung to tradition, priding itself on an aggressive, hard-charging style of attacking fires as departments elsewhere shifted toward a culture of safety.

Charleston's tactics worked in many situations, but they ultimately failed with tragic consequences at the sofa store fire, Routley said.

Problems abound

The panel witnessed problems in Charleston firsthand the very first day when members began their work, in August. They had expected a more advanced fire department in a city of Charleston's size. Yet they watched as city firefighters swarmed head-long into a house to fight fire with undersized hoses, no clear strategy and no formal command structure in place, Routley said.

Panel members had planned to spend weeks studying the department's practices. "We said 'There is stuff going on here that we need to do something about right now.' "

Routley said the Fire Department is still improving and making headway on some 200 needed changes recommended by the panel. But it will likely take at least three years to fully phase out its antiquated ways, he said.

Eleven months after the sofa store fire, Routley still has concerns about how the Fire Department would approach a blaze of that magnitude it if occurred today.

"It takes commitment at the top," he said. "I really think the department needs someone with vision of what the fire service needs to be today."

Thomas' replacement will almost certainly come from outside the Fire Department, Riley said. The city is conducting a nationwide search for a new fire chief.

Routley said the Charleston Fire Department is full of excellent firefighters, but he said he doesn't think anyone there is ready to assume the reins as chief.

The new chief likely will be joined by other outsiders, as several senior commanders are expected to follow Thomas into retirement in the coming months, he said.

Thomas' brother, Battalion Chief Tommy Thomas, submitted his retirement papers Friday and plans to leave by month's end, said Mark Ruppel, the department's public information officer.

Riley said that as the city's chief executive, he accepts responsibility for the state of the Fire Department. But he still thinks there is plenty to be proud of, including a "remarkable record of protecting lives."

Thomas deserves much credit for that, he said.

He also said the Fire Department never was denied a funding request during his more than three decades as mayor.