As the first puffs of smoke rose above the Sofa Super Store on June 18, curious onlookers grabbed their cameras and trained them on the burning building, unaware that their photographs might someday prove invaluable to investigators reconstructing the blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters.

A panel of firefighting consultants hired by the city to analyze the Fire Department and its response to the sofa store blaze has spent months reviewing hundreds of these images, some taken by professionals, others captured by the shaky hands of amateurs. They also have viewed hours of video footage from the fire.

But some photos, which may show a crucial period before fire swept through the building, have eluded investigators. The people who took those photos left the area before authorities could speak with them, taking their cameras with them. What clues their photos may hold remains a mystery.

Today, The Post and Courier is publishing photographs showing unidentified people at the scene carrying cameras. The panel is asking for the public's help to identify these people in hopes that they may have photos from the early minutes of the fire, panel chief Gordon Routley said.

"They were there at the right place, at the right time, and they had cameras. We want to know if there are more photos that might contain some clues that we don't know about."

The panel's report on the fire is expected in January or February. It will detail the response to the fire, what firefighters did right and what they did wrong, Routley said. The review panel's first report in October recommended a top-to-bottom overhaul of the department, including several new positions, millions of dollars in equipment upgrades and purchases and shifts in attitudes toward safety.

The panel's report next year is expected around the same time as reports from two federal agencies with whom the panel has been cooperating, Routley said. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is examining what factors led to the firefighters' deaths. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is using a computer model to reconstruct the blaze to determine why the fire spread so rapidly, why the building quickly collapsed and whether sprinklers could have saved lives.

The community has waited half a year for a determination of what caused the fatal fire and whether criminal charges are pending. Within days of the fire, an official with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives predicted that the investigation into the cause of the blaze would take less than three months. That time frame came and went with no findings from law enforcement officials. Those involved in the probe have since avoided predicting when their work will conclude.

Charleston police are heading up the probe, with assistance from ATF, the State Law Enforcement Division and the Charleston County Sheriff's Office. Charles Francis, police public information officer, said investigators are waiting for additional information from outside agencies before the probe can move forward. Police declined to say which agencies are holding things up or what information is involved.

Lawsuits filed on behalf of two firefighters killed in the blaze state that someone apparently started the fire on the store's loading dock when smoking materials came in contact with furniture varnish and other flammable materials. City and law enforcement officials have not confirmed that theory.

Councilman Henry Fishburne said he has been concerned that City Council has not been kept more in the loop about the pending investigations. At the very least, he said he expected the cause of the fire to be known by now. "It should not be taking this long," he said. "They are clearing the building site, so they must have everything they need."

Here's how to contact fire consultants

The panel of firefighting consultants reviewing the Sofa Super Store fire is asking for help identifying people who may have taken photos during the early stages of the June 18 fire. In particular, the panel is seeking video footage or photos showing the building after the first fire trucks responded but before the fire swept through the building. Photos or information about the unidentified photographers can be e-mailed to charlestonfirereviewteam@earthlink.net. Or contact The Post and Courier at (843)937-5724 or (843)937-5556.