Charleston Phase II Report: Poor Training Led to Deaths

Inadequate training, outdated tactics and aging equipment cited in report. CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Water issues, inadequate training, no truck operations, building code violations, communications problems and no incident commander. These were just a few...


Inadequate training, outdated tactics and aging equipment cited in report.

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Water issues, inadequate training, no truck operations, building code violations, communications problems and no incident commander.

These were just a few issues cited in the Phase II report on the deadly Sofa Super Store fire released Thursday.

The panel also blamed the culture of the Charleston Fire Department for the events that led to the deaths of nine firefighters.

 Gordon Routely, who headed the review panel, called the comprehensive analysis "a tremendous challenge but an enriching experience."

The document is one of the most definitive and complete post-incident fire anaylisis ever conducted. The panel made several critical recommendations before the review started, Those resulted in operational and staffing changes in the CFD.

When Routely finished presenting the panel's critical analysis, an emotional Chief Rusty Thomas stood before the packed room and accepted responsibility for the deaths of his nine friends.

During the two-hour presentation, Thomas often sat stone-faced, his arms crossed. At times, his head was bowed. He wiped his face.

"I knew every single one...I'm so sorry that myself or somebody could not have done something differently that night to bring back those nine guys."

In a voice crackled with emotion, he added: "No one, no expert in this country will ever know what took place in that building that night."

Thomas, who announced his retirement Wednesday, said he thinks about the nine every single day. "It has been the hardest 11 months of my life..."

When he ended after thanking the community for supporting him and the fire department, he received another hug from Mayor Joe Riley as the crowd, who included council members, applauded.

Moments later, a councilman walked over to the chief, reached down and hugged him, saying a prayer aloud.

The panel set the tone in the introduction: "It will never be possible to determine every factor relating to this incident with absolute certainty. The deceased firefighters were the only witnesses who could have described or explained some of the events that occurred inside the Sofa Super Store."

The report -- dedicated to the Charleton 9 -- provides a minute by minute timeline. It traces the actions of firefighters and locations of apparatus during those minutes. Detailed diagrams show apparatus locations and interior line operations. Radio transmissions, photographs and video were used in this recreation of the fire.

Many elements of the report tell the story of the tragedy waiting to happen.

The panel determined that the building had been remodeled without permits or inspections. There were flammable liquids stored improperly in several areas. Some of the exits were locked. "Had the firefighters gotten to them, they would not have been able to get out," Routely said.

Timed pictures of the fire's development -- taken from across the road -- showed heavy smoke and flames from the roof. Routely said the firefighters inside had no idea what was going on above them.

He noted that nearly every firefighter who arrived went into the building, including those on the ladder truck. "They were entering the building by ones and twos..."

One firefighter, who realized a supply line had not been established, turned the corner to find the hydrant missing. It had been removed because delivery trucks kept hitting it. Unaware where the next hydrant may be, he set out on foot to look.

He found one, but wound up 100 feet short of hose. He had to couple the lengths by hand. While that was underway, 16 firefighters were in the burning building with a booster line and an inch-and-a-half.

That water supply set-up took about nine minutes.

Routely said although they were hearing of deteroriating conditions, none of the chiefs made a decision to evacuate the store and move from an offensive to a defensive attack.

That decision didn't come until after several disoriented firefighters had been rescued.

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