Worst loss of firefighters since 9/11

Source: http://www.charlotte.com/breaking_news/story/165782.html

Posted on Tue, Jun. 19, 2007

Worst loss of firefighters since 9/11


Firefighters wept this afternoon as they read notes left with wreaths and bouquets outside a furniture warehouse, where a fire collapsed a roof and claimed the lives of nine of their colleagues Monday night.

The deaths were the worst single loss of firefighters since the attacks of 9/11, according to a spokesman from the U.S. Fire Administration, which tracks fire deaths and injuries.

The fire began at about 7 p.m. at the Sofa Super Store and warehouse, located off U.S. 17 just south of Charleston. One employee in the building was rescued quickly from the blaze, and firefighters punched a hole through a wall of the warehouse to reach the other.

Firefighters, police officers and other rescue workers saluted as the firefighters' bodies were carried from the warehouse during the night.

The dead: William Billy Hutchinson, 48, a captain with 30 years experience; Mike Benke, 49, captain, 29 years; Louis Mulkey, 34, captain, 11.5 years; Mark Kelsey, 40, engineer, 12.5 years; Brad Baity, 37, engineer, 9 years; Michael French, 27, assistant engineer, 1.5 years; James Earl Dryton, 56, firefighter, 32 years; Brandon Thompson, 27, firefighter, 4 years; and Melven Champaign, 46, firefighter, 2 years.

"Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying out their duties," Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley said at a morning news conference. "To all of their loved ones, our heart goes out to them."

The cause of the fire was under investigation, but Riley said arson was not suspected. He said the blaze apparently started in a storage area. He was unsure whether there were sprinklers in the building.

Flames were evident when firefighters arrived, said Mike Parrotta, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters-South Carolina, as he stood across the street from the smoldering site. Two fire stations were within a mile of the property and probably arrived within four minutes of the call.

The fire burned at temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (538 degrees Centrigrade) based on the twisting of the steel beams, Parrotta said.

"It appeared they were having a close-out sale so it's likely they were overstocked and the fire load was greater than normal," Parrotta said. "From the looks of the collapse, the fire did get very intense."

The firefighters entered the building to rescue an employee, Riley said. They broke through the rear of the warehouse to let him escape. The roof fell in before the firefighters could get out, Riley said. A second worker had run out of the building earlier, he said.

The one-story building had no sprinklers, Parrotta said.

Herb Goldstein, the store's owner, said in a statement issued by his son that there were no words to express his sorrow.

"All of us at Sofa Super Store are devastated and heartbroken by this tragedy. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the heroic firefighters who lost their lives," he said.

Jeff Goldstein said his father had owned the store for about 15 years. It was one of three locally owned and operated stores in the Charleston area.

Agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were at the site, said city spokeswoman Barbara Vaughn. The ATF investigates commercial fires and any that involve the loss of life. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also was at the scene, Parrotta said.

In front of the store, nine white crosses made of PVC pipe had been nailed into the ground.

"This whole thing makes me want to cry," said North Charleston's Michelle Jamieson, who came to the scene with her daughters LaTora and Jasmine. "I can't stand that smell."

-- Wire services contributed.