Riley reverses on fire report

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley announces that he will release a report on the Sofa Super Store fire on May 15. Riley changed his position on releasing the report after speaking with firefighters and an advocate for the firefighters families.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley began his day Monday convinced he had made the right decision to delay an investigative report into the deadly Sofa Super Store fire. He held firm even in the face of growing public outrage and a threatened protest at City Hall.

It took a visit to the old Cannon Street fire station Monday evening to change his mind.

Firefighters told him they were in pain. They lost nine of their own in the June 18 fire and didn't want to wait any longer for answers as to why. Riley learned that some families of the fallen felt the same way.

The mayor had wanted to hold on to the report until two federal probes of the blaze were completed and all facts were in hand. But hearing the firefighters' raw emotions sowed doubt.

As he drove back to City Hall, Riley turned to an aide and said, "I just don't know that this is the right course of action."

Riley's announcement Tuesday that he had reversed course and would release the report May 15 took many by surprise. It was an unusual about-face for a long-serving mayor known for carefully staking out positions and holding his ground.

Riley's reversal came amid a growing chorus of public criticism over his plans to delay the report's release.

He was getting hammered on talk radio and the Internet, where people accused him of betraying the community's trust. The national and local firefighters unions had accused him of a cover-up and had taken out a full-page newspaper ad rallying residents to descend on City Council's Tuesday night meeting to protest. Even members of the city-appointed panel who authored the report had stated their work was complete and ready to go.

Riley said the union threats and other jabs didn't influence his decision to change course. It was the concerns of the firefighters and families that swayed him, he said. Shortly before he visited Cannon Street, an aide told him that a widow of one firefighter opposed his decision. He decided that waiting on the federal reports — a delay that could take months — would create an unnecessary cloud of suspicion that could breed ill will and impede efforts to improve the fire department.

"The right thing to do is to not delay the report," he said. "Not releasing it causes doubt and suspicion, and we cannot have any of that. It's important that we keep moving forward."

Scott Jainchill was among a handful of firefighters who met with Riley at the Cannon Street station, the second-oldest fire house in the city. He and other firefighters were taken aback when Riley unexpectedly walked in. He asked to hear their thoughts on the report. They didn't hold back.

"We told him the families deserve to hear it. The firefighters deserve to hear it," Jainchill said. "It's been long enough. We're not going to get any closure by postponing the inevitable. The report is done. Releasing it is the right thing to do, morally and ethically."

Roger Yow, president of the local union that represents about half of the city's 250 firefighters, said Riley made the right call in the end. He said he is certain the pressure from the union played a role in Riley's decision. Even after Riley announced the report's impending release, more than two dozen firefighters heeded the union's call to attend the council meeting in a show of solidarity.

"We did put pressure on him," he said. "We are not calling it a victory. There is no winner in this. There have been no winners in this since June 18. We wanted the truth to come out and that's what this has always been about."

Fire Capt. Jamie Greene said he thinks Riley knew full well he was in for a tense public showdown Tuesday had he not relented. "The men in the department are sick and tired of Mayor Riley playing politics with nine of our friends, our brothers."

Regardless of the mayor's motivation, several family members of the fallen said they were pleased with his decision.

"It's a shame it took some pressure on him to do the right thing, but I'm glad he changed his mind," said Randy Hutchinson, a former city firefighter who lost his brother, Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, in the blaze.

Some council members also said Riley made the right call. Councilman Gary White said residents he spoke with overwhelmingly wanted to see the report out. "I certainly have heard loud and clear. The majority of people wanted this information released."

Former Louisiana Fire Chief Gordon Routley, head of the expert panel that authored the report, has said all along his team's review was ready for public inspection. When Riley first told him that he was considering delaying the report's release, Routley cautioned against it.

"When he called me to tell me he wanted to delay it, I encouraged him to proceed without delay," he said. "I think he is satisfied now that we have all the information."

Riley has insisted that he has not seen a copy of the report. Routley concurred but said the city's legal staff has reviewed draft portions of the document and suggested corrections of certain facts. "There were no bones of contention, nothing that really changed the direction of the report."

Routley declined to say whether the report is critical of the city but said that "people who have expressed doubt about the report's thoroughness will be surprised."

He said the mayor will be given the report on May 14, the day before the planned release.

International Association of Fire Fighters General President Harold Schaitberger praised the mayor's announcement Tuesday, saying the report is badly needed by local union members and the families of the fallen "to make the necessary changes within the Charleston Fire Department and to let the healing continue for the entire community."

"Over the past two days, I have had some in-depth conversations with Mayor Riley, and I found in those very frank yet respectful discussions that he is a man who really listens to all sides of an argument, because he truly cares about the well-being of the City of Charleston and its great citizens and firefighters," Schaitberger said in a prepared statement.

Some city firefighters said they don't expect to be surprised by the report's conclusions. They simply need to see the findings, to see their own assumptions and critiques of the fire verified by experts.

"We want out there what we have known to be the truth for some time: that there can be changes made that will better this department," Firefighter Kevin Prin said.