Asbestos slows demolition of Sofa Super Store

Demolition resumes on the Sofa Super Store site with Candido Lopez (left) and Jamie Flaugher salvaging copper Friday.

The demolition of the Sofa Super Store, a site that will forever mark the tragedy that shook Charleston in 2007, will not be complete until next year.

The presence of asbestos in some of the building's materials will delay final clearing of the site for another two to three weeks, said Brandon Martin, whose company, B&B Demolition Specialists, was hired by the store's owner to dismantle the structure. The work originally was expected to wrap up by the end of the year.

On Friday, crews maneuvered backhoes and other machinery around the site, scooping up mounds of twisted metal and charred wood. The site looks notably clearer than it has since the June 18 blaze that killed nine area firefighters.

"We are making room so we can remove the asbestos," Martin said. "That's been the hold-up."

Martin declined to say how much asbestos is in the building, parts of which are at least 50 years old. But a permit issued by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control notes the presence of 15,000 square feet of building materials containing asbestos.

Asbestos was banned in the manufacturing of construction materials in the late 1970s. When disturbed, asbestos can crumble into microscopic dust particles which, if inhaled, can pose a health threat.

Robert Rosen, the Sofa Super Store's lawyer, said the building contains "very little" asbestos and it does not pose a hazard to the public. "They are taking every precaution to make sure there is no danger to the community, particularly the neighbors."

Even as the store comes down, tributes to the fallen firefighters continue to collect along the sidewalk. Visitors dropped off flowers, photos and wreaths during the holidays. Members of one local church left behind a collection of condolences from children. "I am sorry the firemen died," wrote one girl. Another child offered: "Sorry that your family will cry for them to come back."

Romy Pascual drives past the site every morning on his way to work at the Sentry car dealership nearby. He said he felt a sense of relief as work progressed Friday and he looks forward to something positive rising from the ashes. "I want to see it become a memorial park so people will never forget the sacrifice."

Charleston city officials have made an offer to purchase the land and are waiting for a response, said Mark Ruppel, public information officer for the Charleston Fire Department.

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Martin said he recognizes that the clearing of the site stirs strong emotions. He said one woman recently chastised him for posting his company's sign in front of the store. She thought it was insensitive to advertise so close to the makeshift memorials.

Earlier this month, family members of one fallen firefighter and other supporters were upset by the removal of some of the building's steel beams, which they said resembled a cross and comforted them.

Martin said he also was saddened by the deaths, and his company made a substantial donation to the firefighters fund after the blaze. But now he's trying to focus on completing his work. "Everybody knows it's tragic, but I have a job to do."

Some of the more identifiable remnants of the store, its facade and roadside marquee, will be among the last items hauled away, Martin said. Though he doesn't know who will remove the freestanding sign, which carries a message declaring that the nine firefighters will not be forgotten. "I'm not going to touch that sign," he said.