In fiscal year 1998, Congress recognized the need for further efforts to address the continuing national problem of occupational fire fighter fatalities and funded NIOSH to implement a fire fighter safety initiative. On June 18th 2007 the fire occurred at the Sofa Super Store, which was composed of a single-story steel trussed showroom building with a warehouse building located behind the retail space.
The building had no fire sprinkler system, which would have cost approximately $3 per square foot. The fire started at approximately 7:00 p. m. in a covered loading dock area built between the showroom and warehouse buildings which were attached to both buildings. At the time, the business was still open and employees were present. Charleston firefighters arrived on the scene just three minutes after the alarm, followed soon after by firefighters from the St. Andrews Public Service District.
The initial attack focused on extinguishing the fire in the loading dock area, with a secondary effort to search for and evacuate civilians, and to prevent the fire from spreading to the showroom and warehouse. Crews entering the showroom reportedly initially encountered clear visibility with only very light puffs of smoke visible near the ceiling at the back of the showroom. Shortly thereafter, an exterior door was opened near where the fire was raging. Efforts to close the door failed, allowing the fire to enter the showroom.
Firefighters were ordered to stretch two hose lines into the showroom to attack the spreading fire, however the pre-connected hose line from one of the units was too short, requiring some firefighters to again exit the building to add additional sections of hose and leaving only one small handline to hold back the growing fire. At about this time, fire dispatchers advised the crew’s on-scene that they had received a 9-1-1 call from an employee who was trapped in the warehouse, which required some firefighters to direct their attention to the rescue.
The trapped employee was eventually rescued by firefighters who breached an exterior wall to reach him. Despite efforts to confine and extinguish the fire, it continued to spread into the structure and ignited furniture in the showroom, growing more quickly than the few operating hose lines could control before additional water could be applied to the fire, however efforts to stretch and begin operating additional hose lines continued. The showroom area of the store experienced a flashover while at least sixteen firefighters were still working inside.
The flashover contributed to the rapid deterioration of the structural integrity of the building, leading to a near-complete collapse of the roof just minutes later. Many of the firefighters caught in the flashover were unable to escape and were trapped under the collapsed roof and shelving weakened by the fast-spreading fire. Several calls for help were made by trapped firefighters and efforts to rescue them were commenced. These efforts proved unsuccessful. By the time the fire was brought under control, nine Charleston firefighters had been killed.
According to Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten, the firefighters died of a combination of smoke inhalation and burns, but not from injuries sustained from the collapse itself. It was the greatest single loss of firefighters in the United States since 343 firefighters were lost in the collapse of the World Trade Center which resulted from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It was also the deadliest fire in the state of South Carolina since 11 people died in a blaze at the Lancaster County jail in 1979.