As questions persist about the June 18 Sofa Super Store fire, Charleston is set to begin its own internal review of the tragedy that took nine firefighters. While the city's response to concerns over building safety and employee benefits has been swift, a closer look at the fire may provide some comfort to those troubled by suggestions that the response to the next large fire would be business as usual.
Reports of the local review surfaced last week, more than a month after state and national agencies began investigating the cause and response to the blaze. It has been planned all along, says Mayor Joe Riley. Just as the city's response to Hurricane Hugo became an example for coastal communities to emulate and learn from, Riley says that the Sofa Super Store fire can also provide broader lessons that extend beyond our Lowcountry community.
"Fire services throughout America will want to understand this fire to help those fire departments prepare for this kind of eventuality," he says. "It's a tragic learning experience, but a very important learning experience," he says.
While each agency investigating the fire has a goal — reviewing building permits, causation, or fire protocol — the city is looking at all angles, from the need for sprinkler systems to the benefits and aid to firefighters and their families. Riley plans to pull in national experts to provide an independent eye and a national perspective on how to improve the city's fire response.
"Our common goal is to make sure we all fully understand the fire."
The proliferation of video and photos from the scene, literally from the moment the first trucks pulled into the parking lot, has prompted a wealth of criticism for the fire response. The type of hoses used, the management of the scene, the lack of equipment on some firefighters — all have surfaced in the local media. The drawn-out investigations, though understandably monotonous and grueling, seem to have fanned armchair speculation about the findings.
City Fire Chief Rusty Thomas's early response to criticism didn't help quell concerns. His initial reaction was that the department wouldn't make any changes, at all, ever. He quickly tempered those comments to say that they would consider any findings from the outside reviews. Now, Thomas appears almost enthusiastic at the opportunity for suggestions.
"Anything that we can do to help us change for the better, we'll change that day," he says. "If the investigations (find something) that will make this fire department better and make other fire departments better, we'll change that day."
But he insists nothing would have altered the fates of the lost firefighters.
"I don't think we could have done anything differently that night that would have made the outcome different than it was," he says.
Some improvements aren't waiting for detailed analysis. The city has successfully lobbied for dramatic cuts to the Charleston Water Services sprinkler rates. The sofa store had no sprinklers and it was the first red flag to go up after the blaze. Reports in the Post and Courier about the excessive rates for sprinkler systems prompted quick action from the mayor, calling for the service to eliminate connection charges and drastically reduce the annual fees.
"We led the effort to reverse sprinkler system fees and we see a national opportunity for leadership there," Riley says.
Officials continue to work with the families to expedite and expand survivor benefits, the mayor says. Donations are still rolling in for the Firemen's Fund, now totaling nearly $2.5 million. The city is also trying to aid firefighters impacted by the tragedy through peer counseling, including visits from departments that have experienced similar tragedies. Riley says that he's pursuing hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant funding to continue the counseling efforts. The mayor has also stressed the importance for public safety workers to establish a will, after seeing the hurdles placed in front of most of the families of the lost firefighters who didn't have one.
There's no word on when the various investigations and reviews will be completed, but Police Chief Greg Mullen said recently that "it's only been six weeks." While the pressure for answers in a local tragedy may dull as months pass by, the national investment in the story of the Charleston Nine insures the public won't abandon this story until the books are closed and the lingering questions are put to rest.