Charleston Fire: Last Man Out

Harvey Eisner interviews the last survivor from the Charleston sofa factory store fire.


Nine Charleston, SC, firefighters died in a fire in a furniture store on June 18, 2007. In the preparation of this article, Firehouse ® Magazine was given permission to talk to only a select number of Charleston firefighters. We do not yet have the entire story nor do we presume to have any...


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KILCOYNE: No, you still couldn't see. It was a lighter black, but you still couldn't see. I couldn't see my light at all. He ran and he said he went out a window. I just followed the hose on out. When I got out, I asked him if he was all right and he just said thank you, thank you and he had his hands on his knees and he had his mask ripped off because he was out of air. He was done.

I threw my mask back on and I went back in the building following the hose. My captain was back there and the fire started getting so hot he had to come out. He was having problems too. He came out. The hose was all wound up. That's what was getting a lot of people lost. He was trying to feel his way around this hose. His mask started sucking to his face. He just got up and ran and started hurdling the furniture. Thad, our fireman, he had the hose. The captain ran into him and he said I'm out of air, I'm out of air. Thad goes I got the hose right here. He just pushed him out the way. I was coming in on the hose and he ran into me. When he ran into me, he grabbed my little pressure hose. He said I'm fixing to run out of air. I said I got the hose right here. I grabbed him and I started walking with him. He's pulling on my little pressure hose. I stopped him. I said hey, you got to quit pulling. You're pulling my mask off my face. I'm fixing to run out of air. I said all right, but quit pulling on my hose.

We don't know who each other are. He's going to get the hell out of there. We ended up walking. We get about 20 feet from the door. He breaks off and starts running just like the other guy, and he runs out the front door. When I came out the front door and I looked over there, he had to rip his mask off. I turned around to go back in again. When I looked at my air, I only had 600 pounds. I was the last man to go in and I only had 600 pounds, so all these guys were in there way before I was, so they were definitely already out of air. I turned around to the assistant engineer and said get me a bottle. He got me a bottle. I told Thad we were going back in. Thad just come out too, and he put a bottle on me and when I stood up, the whole building lit up all the way across.

FIREHOUSE: When you first went in, you said when you started ripping down the sheetrock. Could you feel the heat?

KILCOYNE: I never saw any fire.

FIREHOUSE: As you were coming in, was it hot as you were getting to it or not until you started.

KILCOYNE: I stood up all the way. I never got on my knees at any time. I could tell it was getting hot. I'll tell you it was so hot all my stickers on my helmet were curling over.

FIREHOUSE: When you entered, was it straight right up the main aisle?

KILCOYNE: Oh, no, it kind of went at an angle. Then it kind of zigzagged a little, snaked in there. You couldn't just walk straight through there.

FIREHOUSE: So when the first firefighters ran into you, what were the conditions then? You said you were pulling the ceiling down and you could feel the heat?

KILCOYNE: I was pulling the wall. I was just jabbing into the sheetrock. What I was doing, it was jabbing in the room where they had the fire. I was jabbing. That's where I was getting the heat from, but I didn't know that until everybody was sitting there telling us what was what.

FIREHOUSE: When the two people one at a time bumped into you, you still couldn't see them?

KILCOYNE: I couldn't see.

FIREHOUSE: Were the conditions getting worse?

KILCOYNE: It was definitely getting worse. I was coming back over here to get with these guys, figuring we were going to get the hell out of there. That's when Walker ran into me. I was just as lost as any of these guys were at this time. When I found the hose, then Walker ran into me. Walker hit me so hard that he pushed me off the hose. I had my foot on the hose. I just had found it. Then we hit together. It was just pure luck. He said that what he did is he was following the hose out and the furniture had got pushed over the hose in a couple of areas and he climbed over the furniture and when he got on the other side, there wasn't any hose. He was trying to move around. He said every which way he moved, it was getting hotter, so he just stood up and ran, and he ran into me.

It was deathly quiet. It was the quietest fire I've ever been in my entire life. Usually in a fire you can hear people hollering hey, give me… There wasn't any of that. All the companies, 11's crew was out and the rest of the firefighters have already run out of air. There wasn't anybody there. It was just the three of us back there.