Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas says last year's Sofa Super Store fire changed him forever, and stepping aside would be the best way to help his fire department heal.
The announcement Wednesday that the embattled chief will retire June 27 came on the eve of a highly anticipated report that is expected to be critical of the department's handling of the June 18 blaze that killed nine of Thomas' firefighters.
Mayor Joe Riley said there was no connection between Thomas' decision and the forthcoming report or calls for someone to be held accountable in the wake of the tragedy. "He expressed no concern about the report," Riley said of Thomas. "It shouldn't be seen as that at all — unequivocally no."
Outside department headquarters, Thomas spoke to reporters for less than a minute and declined to answer questions. "The city of Charleston Fire Department has been my life for 32 years," he said. "For 16 of those 32 years, I put the fire department in front of my family. My family and I got together the past couple of weeks, and we decided it would be better for me and my family to retire."
Riley said the city will immediately launch a nationwide search for a new fire chief, a process expected to take 90 to 120 days.
Thomas is a third-generation Charleston firefighter, following his father, his grandfather and his uncle into the department. He joined in 1976. A down-to-earth, affable man, the James Island native has served as chief since 1992. His community involvement, frequent public appearances and devotion to his beloved
city and fire department have made him a colorful and celebrated local figure. In his more than three decades with the city, he had taken only one sick day.
But the sofa store fire and the tough questions that followed placed Thomas under enormous pressure as investigators and an independent panel descended on the city to comb through the rubble of the store — and every facet of the department.
Thomas endured a steady drumbeat of criticism and calls for his ouster from union leaders, experts and firefighters from across the country. He also faced growing dissension within his own ranks. He was faulted for failing to keep pace with modern advances and standards designed to protect firefighters. And he was hammered over his initial insistence that the department did nothing wrong the night of the fire and that it had no intention of changing methods it had honed over generations.
Riley said Thomas came to see him Tuesday afternoon and presented a letter expressing his decision to retire. As recently as last week, Riley expressed unwavering support for Thomas and touted him as the man to lead the department into a new era.
Thomas for months had rejected calls for his resignation, saying he owed it to the memory of his fallen firefighters to stay on as the department undergoes a sweeping transformation of its tactics, equipment and training. Those changes were prompted by several investigations into the fire.
The chief stunned firefighters across the city Wednesday when his familiar booming drawl sounded over their radios to announce his retirement plans.
"I love this department and have given it my entire professional life. The loss of my nine friends last June 18 changed me and this department forever," Thomas wrote in his letter to Riley. "I feel as though the best thing I can do right now to help this department that I love so much heal from the tragedy of June 18 is to step aside as Chief."
Roger Yow, president of the local firefighters union that represents about half of the city's 250 firefighters, said he was in utter shock and had not expected Thomas to step down.
While the state and national firefighters union had called for Thomas to lose his job in the wake of the fire, Yow's organization had not yet taken a formal position. "I've never had anything against the chief personally," Yow said. "We just wish him and his family the best. We feel like it was something that needed to be done to help this fire department move forward."
Earlier this week, Riley met in Washington, D.C., with Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, to discuss issues surrounding the fire department. Riley was in the nation's capitol for an unrelated conference. The mayor insisted that meeting played no part in Thomas' abrupt departure.
Schaitberger's assistant, Jeff Zack, said the president described the meeting as "a privileged discussion, but also a frank and open discussion about the future of the Charleston Fire Department, everything from the grass roots on up."
Schaitberger said in a statement that the local and national union are "single-minded in our work for real change in the training, policy, command and operating procedures of the Charleston Fire Department so that what happened last June 18 never happens again."
Report out today
Some local firefighters had been organizing a public demonstration of some sort to coincide with today's release of the city-appointed panel's investigative report on the fire. It's unclear whether those plans had any impact on Thomas' decision.
The report from the panel of consultants is expected to build on a draft of a federal report that the city made public last week. The draft report painted a stark picture of a chaotic scene of firefighters begging for more water to fight back a growing inferno, missing telltale signs of impending doom and commanders issuing orders that conflicted with basic firefighting principles.
Janet Wilmoth, editorial director of Fire Chief magazine, said it was the right time for Thomas to step down, as the independent panel will likely call for a variety of changes in its report. "It's in the best interest of the department to look for new leadership," she said. "They need a fresh start."
Gordon Routley, who heads the city-appointed review panel, said neither he nor any of the other panel members were involved in Thomas' decision. "It's not really surprising given the pressure he has been under," he said. "I imagine it has to be very difficult for him. His whole life has been the fire department."
St. Andrews Fire Capt. Morris Sills, who oversaw his department's response at the Sofa Super Store blaze, has been critical of Thomas' command decisions on the scene that night.
Sills said Thomas initially turned down his offers of assistance and manpower. In the early stages of the fire, Sills and his men also offered Thomas the use of larger hose lines and a thermal imaging camera, which Thomas said he did not need, according to a federal report. But investigations indicated one of the major problems was lack of water because hose lines were too small.
"My first thought is one of relief. It's finally over, and we can start getting some closure," Sills said. "A lot of these (firefighters) are falling apart and their marriages are breaking up. This will be a major step in improving their mental health. It's upsetting it took so long."
Reaction to retirement
The fire department has been deeply divided since the sofa store blaze, with some firefighters standing staunchly behind the chief, while others have insisted that his presence impedes efforts to move beyond the department's aggressive and tradition-bound ways.
Capt. Mark Davis of Station 6 on Cannon Street was one of a handful of firefighters who barely escaped the store before a rushing wave of flames consumed the building. He is still struggling to deal with the loss of nine of his friends.
"I still do have anger. In my mind, I still can't absorb the fact that we lost nine men," he said. "The groundwork for what happened that day was set in motion before Chief Thomas ever showed up on scene. But it happened on his watch."
Capt. Jamie Greene, also of Station 6, has been a vocal proponent for change in the department. But even he has mixed emotions about Thomas' departure. "I like Rusty personally. If Rusty needed me right now, I would be right there for him. But none of this is based on friendship; it's based on job performance."
Capt. Art Wittner, the lone surviving member of the Engine Co. 16 crew that night, is unhappy Thomas is leaving. He doesn't think anyone could have changed the outcome that night, and he hopes the chief wasn't "railroaded" into retiring. "This was something that happened and only God could have changed it," he said. "I know he loved this fire department and he loved those nine guys."
Randy Hutchinson, a former Charleston firefighter who lost his brother, Capt. Billy Hutchinson, in the fire, compared Thomas' departure to the opening of a valve that releases pressure. "They have been distorting the truth and hiding the facts for a long time," he said. "This is the first positive step for the healing of that department."
Paula Kelsey, mother of fallen Engineer Mark Kelsey, said Thomas should have to account for her son's death before he is allowed to retire. "I would like him to have to face me first," she said.
The Charleston City Council had been largely absent from the debate over Thomas' future with the department. Their requests to meet with the expert panel for updates on the investigations and to be more involved in the process have been rebuffed by Riley. Several council members expressed continued support for Thomas, though most said they weren't surprised by his decision.
"He's a very strong fellow, but he had the weight of the city on his shoulders," City Councilman James Lewis said.
Jay Lowry, a former Charleston firefighter who writes the Internet blog Firefighter Hourly, described Thomas' resignation as "another step in the process" of improving the Charleston Fire Department. He predicted that other senior commanders would follow Thomas into retirement, creating leadership openings for firefighters who "buy into" modern tactics and procedures.
"What we're seeing here through all of this is really the birth of a 21st century fire department," he said.
Thomas's post-retirement plans aren't clear. Reality TV show personality Richard C. Davis of Trademark Properties, a friend and supporter of the chief, said Thomas' retirement won't diminish his standing in the community. In fact, Davis plans to offer Thomas a job.
"He is a community leader," Davis said. "No matter what his title is, he is still Rusty Thomas and a vital part of this community. And he always will be."
Thomas' life devoted to fighting fires
JAN. 28, 1958: Russell B. Thomas Jr. is born into a family of longtime firefighters.
JUNE 1976: Thomas graduates from Fort Johnson High School on James Island and immediately joins the Charleston Fire Department at age 18, turning down a baseball scholarship.
JAN. 13, 1989: Thomas becomes a battalion chief.
1990: Thomas earns "Fireman of the Year" award from the Exchange Club of Charleston.
JUNE 17, 1991: An explosion at the Albright & Wilson chemical plant kills nine workers, prompting an investigation of the Fire Department's safety procedures.
JAN. 9, 1992: Thomas begins tenure as fire chief.
MAY 1998: The Insurance Services Offices gives the department a Class 1 ranking.
JUNE 18, 2007: Sofa Super Store fire kills nine city firefighters.
JUNE 28, 2007: Charleston Firefighters Association President Roger Yow calls on Thomas to improve safety standards to match national guidelines.
AUG. 18, 2007: An independent panel hired by the city to evaluate the Fire Department and what happened at the Sofa Super Store fire releases an emergency report identifying deficiencies needing prompt attention. They include staffing shortages, lax safety enforcement and failure to keep pace with modern national firefighting techniques.
MAY 8, 2008: National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety releases draft federal report critical of the department's handling of the blaze. The report cites lack of water as a defining problem the night of the fire.
MAY 14, 2008: Thomas announces his retirement as fire chief.
-- Compiled by Nathan Frandino