I don't claim to know a great deal about the business of firefighting. In fact, all I know is what I read in the newspaper and what I have occasionally written in various newspapers over the years.
But the moment I heard that nine men had died in the Sofa Super Store fire last June, I knew this was not just an unfortunate accident. This was a systemic breakdown of command and process. How could nine men have rushed into a one-floor warehouse store and been killed less than 30 minutes after the first alarm sounded?
The Sofa Super Store disaster says as much about the political culture of our city (and, by extension, our state) as it does about the culture of the Charleston Fire Department. In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, as the nine fallen firefighters were being memorialized, Chief Rusty Thomas sounded a defiant and defensive note, saying, "I wouldn't do anything different," from what he did on that fatal night.
Mayor Joe Riley defended his chief and his department from day one, insisting that it was one of the best fire departments in the country and had used the best techniques and equipment in fighting the furniture store blaze. This is a mayor who has been in office more than 30 years — at least 10 years too long, in my opinion — defending a fire chief who was brought up in the nepotistic firefighting culture. Thomas is a third-generation CFD member; his brother is also a member of the Charleston Fire Department.
The Sofa Super Store fire continues to take its toll on our community and public institutions, this time at City Hall. Last week, Charleston City Council saw the long-awaited report by an outside panel of firefighters it hired to look into the disaster. In council chambers we saw Riley and Councilman Tim Mallard get into an ugly tiff. Mallard asked the mayor to leave the room as the report was being presented. Riley refused, so Mallard walked out.
The 272-page report was scathing in its indictment of the fire department's leadership, training, tactics, and equipment. The department was criticized for utilizing firefighting techniques that were at least 30 years out of date, using inadequate equipment, and having a virtually nonexistent command structure.
Just before the report was released, Thomas "resigned" — something he should have done 10 months ago. We will probably never know what personal, political, or other reasons caused the mayor to stand so stalwartly by Thomas, as the evidence mounted over the past year of his incompetence and mismanagement. At the moment when the city and the department needed decisive action and a clean start, Riley belligerently defended the good ole boys down at the firehouse.
We know how things work in South Carolina. We have among the worst roads, the worst public education, the worst public health, the worst environmental protection in the nation. It's been that way so long we don't even think about it anymore.
We become inured to what it really means to live in this little Third World country. In other states, in other counties, people live better, live longer; they live more prosperously and less violently. Yet, when someone points out that there are better ways of doing things, better models for government and society, better ways of choosing leaders, solving problems, relating to one another, fighting fires, they are frequently called out as troublemakers: "We don't care how they do it up North. This is South Carolina!"
We don't notice how badly things are run in this city and this state because the crises are generally small and incremental, the deaths slow and uncounted. It takes a disaster like the Sofa Super Store fire to bring all this incompetence, malfeasance, and cronyism into sharp focus and show us the real cost of living this way.
Now the official fire department report is on the record. CFD will get new leadership — hopefully, from outside the department. It will get new training in firefighting techniques. It has already gotten new equipment and uniforms which it should have had when those men went into the furniture store fire and didn't come out. But what a terrible price we paid to make those changes which should have been made years ago.
How many other state and local agencies are just as compromised as the Charleston Fire Department was on June 18, 2007? We may never know, because teachers, highway officials, and environmental regulators do not put their lives on the line as firefighters do. So we will muddle on, as we have year after year, generation after generation, satisfied with the mediocrity, corruption, and cronyism that are our birthright.