Chief Rusty Thomas
Photo credit: Photo by Susan Nicol Kyle
Chief Rusty Thomas announced his resignation over the fire department radio Wednesday morning.
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Chief Rusty Thomas, who has come under increased scrutiny since a blaze last June claimed nine of his firefighters, announced his resignation over the fire department radio Wednesday morning.
Thomas, 50, said he will retire June 27.
Outside fire headquarters office Wednesday afternoon, Thomas said: "I put the fire department in front of my family."
He said it was best for both he and his family to step down after 32 years.
With that, the embattled chief walked away. He headed right back into the fire department and up the stairs to his office.
About 20 minutes earlier, Mayor Joe Riley denied the retirement was tied to the much anticipated investigative panel's report due to be released Thursday. The mayor said he knows how much Thomas has suffered since the loss of the firefighters, adding that he knew and loved each of them.
"In the 32 years on the department, he used only one sick day," Riley said, adding that Thomas remains committed to making improvements.
He also said he did not ask Thomas to step down. The mayor admitted he had mixed emotions when his longtime friend announced his intentions on Tuesday afternoon. But, answering a question from the media, Riley added: "I did not try to talk him out of it..."
The mayor said Thomas' decision should not be seen as an admission of responsibility.
Riley struggled and hesitated briefly to find the appropriate words as he described what he called the perfect storm. "In less than 20 minutes, it went from a trash fire in the back of a one-story sofa store to a deadly fire..."
The nationwide search for a new chief has already started. Who will take over during the interim will be discussed at the proper time.
Riley released a draft NIOSH report that faulted several issues with the fire department's handling of the June 18 fire.
The 200-page report from the review panel will be delivered to the family, firefighters and then, the public on Thursday.
The news of Thomas' departure came as no surprise to some including Randy Hutchinson, whose brother, Billy, was killed in the June 18 blaze at the furniture store.
"The handwriting has been on the wall for some time. It's only going to get worse. I'm very happy he's leaving. But, I'm not jumping up and down. I'm not taking the day off the celebrate, nothing like that."
Hutchinson, a former Charleston firefighter, said what has taken place in his city is deplorable. "For the past 11 months, they have put us through hell. It's been terrible. What's happened here shouldn't have happened anywhere in America, let alone the city that prides itself on being very courteous and attractive to tourists."
He said his heart goes out to the firefighters who remain on the job, those who continue to answer the alarms. "They are taking a beating. Their emotions are terrible, fragile. I think 28-30 men have left. Some just walked off. They're being stonewalled..."
Hutchinson said he's not the only one trying to piece together what happened the night the firefighters met their deaths in the blazing store. "What did transpire out there?"
He refers to the site as a crime scene. "I hope the truth comes out. I think the panel's report will be 10 times worse than the federal report."
Roger Yow, president of Charleston Local 61, said of Thomas' announcement: "We were shocked. We didn't expect that to happen. And, why today -- before the report is released?"
But Yow, who has been critical of Thomas' leadership, said he believes the move is the first step in the healing process in Charleston.
"He's a good person, who really did love the fire department. I wish the best for him and his family..."
Despite the growing animosity towared Chief Thomas, a member of one of the fallen firefighters' families supports him.
"Mike (French) loved Chief Rusty and the Charleston Fire Department. He had the utmost respect for him," Mike Campbell, French's cousin, said. "Our hearts go out to him."