J. Gordon Routley, Project Team Leader spoke to a packed ballroom at the San Diego Convention Center.
The Charleston Sofa Super Store fire in Charleston, SC on June 18, 2007 saw nine firefighters killed.
J. Gordon Routley, Project Team Leader of the Charleston Post-Incident Assessment and Enhancement Review Task Force, spoke to a packed ballroom at the San Diego Convention Center during opening ceremonies of Firehouse World.
"Every so often an incident occurs that is so shocking that it causes all of us to stop and wonder how and why it happened," he said. Sometimes there is an incident that "the best of the best of us couldn't have prevented the loss."
Routley went on to recount some of the major fire incidents that claimed multiple firefighters and noted that many of the incident involved large buildings that posed unreasonable risk to firefighter. "We are not inventing news ways to kill firefighters."
Routley pointed out that there was much he could not discuss yet because the investigation was still going on. And then he began to give the timeline of the Sofa Super Store fire. There is nothing we can do to bring back these nine firefighters he said, and it is pointless to try to find someone to blame. "No one wanted it to happen. No one would have let it happen if they saw it coming. That's why we are here today to learn from this experience," he said.
A slide presentation gave the layout of the buildings and what they housed. It showed the access the firefighters had and where they went in the buildings. The first 911 call came in at 7:08 p.m. The first dispatch went out at 7:09 p.m.
In listening to the fire ground tapes now, Routley said you can here the first radio traffic related to firefighters in trouble at 7:27 p.m., but it was not heard by anyone on the fire ground. There was still no smoke in the main showrooms. At 7:29 p.m. there is more radio traffic from firefighters lost and looking for help. Again no one can hear them on the fire ground.
At 7:30 p.m. a firefighter driving to the fire ground in his own car hears the radio distress calls and he tried to reach a chief to tell him about it but he could not get through.
At 7:31 p.m. the now famous rescue of the employee trapped inside the building is made by cutting through the wall. He did not have much time left.
At 7:32 p.m. it is the only time you hear the May Day call and now a chief tells everyone to stay off the radio to listen for those calls. At 7:33, the firefighter traveling to the scene gets out of his car and tells a chief face to face what he has heard. The call goes out for everyone to come out to get accounted for.
It is becoming a little chaotic now and firefighters are losing each other and struggling to get out. The fire is rapidly expanding. At 7:38 p.m. Chief Thomas orders a full evacuation. By 7:40 p.m. the interior is fully involved and the last firefighters that will survive are getting out of the building.
It wasn't until 10:00 p.m. that search and recovery began.
Routley said his message today was, "this is what happened in Charleston, we need to be aware of it, learn from it. We need to do everything we can to keep it from happening to any of us, to keep our firefighters safe. And we have to get it right to honor nine brave firefighters who lost their lives in Charleston that night."
Several times during his presentation Routley appeared quite choked up relating an incident he has lived with, intensly, for six months now. Asked at the end if this was a difficult presentation for him, he said, "It was tough, very tough." He will be giving more of these presentation throughout the year.
The group created by Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. tapped six fire-rescue professionals from around the country to examine the city's fire department and its handling of a fatal fire in June.
They are in the process of looking at firefighting practices, code enforcement, fire-rescue training and media relations in Charleston and have so far presented a preliminary report and heard a progress report put together by the city for them.