Charleston Fire: Last Man Out

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 conclusions at this time. All the facts are not in. These interviews are intended only to shed some light into the fatal fire and operations that were conducted before and after the fire.

The following interview was conducted by Firehouse® Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner with Charleston Firefighter Bill Kilcoyne, the driver of Engine 6, who has 23 years of service, and Firefighter Thad Morgan of Engine 6, who has seven months of service.

FIREHOUSE: How did your company respond to the fire?

KILCOYNE: We ended up being the sixth engine.

FIREHOUSE: It's a pretty good ride?

KILCOYNE: A five-minute run.

FIREHOUSE: Did you relocate or cover another station?

KILCOYNE: We relocated to Engine 11.

FIREHOUSE: Did you hear the fire being dispatched over the radio?

KILCOYNE: We heard everything going on.

FIREHOUSE: What did they say?

KILCOYNE: They said that they had a fire in the rear of the Super Sofa store, 1807 Savannah Highway. The battalion chief got there and said it was trash up against the building and it didn't appear to be inside. The assistant chief got there at the same time and said it is in the building. They were calling the other pumpers. They called 12 and then 16. Then 15 started relocating and we relocate after 15. We turned on Spring Street. They said Number 6 come to the fire.

FIREHOUSE: How far away from the scene were you then?

KILCOYNE: We had just left the station.

FIREHOUSE: Things were happening very fast?

KILCOYNE: Really fast. They said for us to go ahead and relocate to Number 11, and they called 19 into the fire. So 19 went. As soon as we got over the bridge, we could see the black smoke. It was jet black. They called for Number 6 to come to the fire for manpower and come into the front of the building. When we got there, my captain and the firemen were already dressed. I was still in my regular uniform. They took off and went to the front of the building.

FIREHOUSE: When you were arriving at the building, you saw a tremendous column of smoke?

KILCOYNE: It was heavy black smoke coming out and dropping down Savannah Highway. That fire was burning pretty good.

FIREHOUSE: What's the captain's name?

KILCOYNE: Captain Mark Davis.

FIREHOUSE: And who was the other firefighter?

KILCOYNE: Thad Morgan.

FIREHOUSE: When you got to the scene, you parked out on the street?

KILCOYNE: We're in the middle of Savannah Highway on the median.

FIREHOUSE: As you approached the scene, what was going on out in front?

KILCOYNE: Engine 11 was parked in the front. They went ahead and I was a couple of minutes behind them. I was walking up to the engineer pumping Number 11. I said, boy, that's a bad fire. The captain of Number 11 was coming out. I got to the front door and there was a man standing there and I'm not sure who this man is. I don't know if he was the owner or the manager. He said somebody's inside the building because his car is still in the parking lot. I said, there's firemen in there right now and I'm fixing to go in. I threw my mask on, grabbed my pike pole.

FIREHOUSE: Were the windows still in?

KILCOYNE: All the windows were still in. Smoke was rolling out the front. When you went into the front door, the smoke was tailing to the back. I mean it was just pulling to the back. It kind of made a little silhouette of the doorway, about five feet in and then it went jet-black smoke. I went in and I was dragging my foot on the line and I got in about 20 feet. I reached down and picked up the line and followed the line and went all the way to the back of the store.

FIREHOUSE: As you're following the hoseline, can you feel furniture on either side?

KILCOYNE: You're walking in a little pathway of furniture. It's just not straight back. It's just swerving.

FIREHOUSE: You're following the line, but if you went just a foot?

KILCOYNE: You'd be in the furniture, because it was all around you. It had just a little narrow walkway that you could walk through. Just enough for me to fit through and the hose. I got all the way to the back. There are so many pumpers there at this time. There is a doorway going back to where the nozzle was where they were fighting the fire. I'm figuring there's a bunch of firemen right there. When I got to that point, I broke away from the line. I had a pike pole and I started pulling on the wall. There was a sheetrock wall that went all the way to the back. I walked over about I'd say between 10 and 20 feet. I took the pike pole, started ripping the wall. I must have hit that wall about four or five times. I'm reaching for the ceiling now and I thought I was pulling ceiling.

FIREHOUSE: Up to this point, did you actually go to the nozzle?

KILCOYNE: No, I'm just figuring there's a bunch of firemen here and there's no sense in me trying to fight my way.

FIREHOUSE: Did you hear any water flowing?

KILCOYNE: I couldn't hear the water. I just didn't know how many people were there. I didn't want to get mixed up with them. I just was gonna tear some of the wall out. I started feeling the heat. I'm gonna start seeing fire and I can holler back to these guys. I got fire on this end, is what I was thinking. But I hit it four or five times. A fireman comes up to me on my left side and grabbed me and he's in panic and said I'm running out of air and I'm lost. Then, at the same time, another firefighter comes up and then another one comes up to my chest. I can't remember who they are, but the one that comes up to my chest he just grabbed me, said I'm fixing to run out of air, I'm fixing to run out of air. I could grab one and one dropped down, went underneath my legs. This is in a matter of seconds that they just spun around and ran. The other one ran another way. I wasn't sure how many it was, but I know it was at least three. So they pulled away and went, and this one went and they were all in a panic. All of their vibra-alarms were going off, every one.

FIREHOUSE: Could you see them or could you just hear them?

KILCOYNE: No, you couldn't see. If I took a flashlight and put it on my mask, I couldn't even see the light.

FIREHOUSE: They just ran into you?

KILCOYNE: They just ran into me. It was just that quick. It was all of five seconds this happened in. It kind of got me turned around and I'm looking for the hose. I'm lost. I made like five circles back to the right. I backed up and I got into the furniture and I said no, I'm not getting in the furniture. I went back to where I was pulling the wall and I started making circles to the right. I made the sixth circle and I ran into the hose.

Right when I hit the hose, somebody else ran into me and said I'm running out of air, I'm running out of air and I'm lost. I don't know where I am. I grabbed him. I said I've got the hose right here. He knocked me off the hose, so it took me a minute to find the hose. I felt around. I found the hose again. I reached down, picked it up. I started walking back. I didn't know which way to go, so I started walking back. These guys coming up has really got my head kind of messed up. I started going back through a doorway with this guy. I have to be going the wrong way because I don't remember this doorway. I turned around on the hose and I started coming out. He kept on screaming. If he didn't say it one time, he said it 500 times, I'm fixing to run out of air.

I started walking and got about 20 feet. I said I got to be going the right way. I kept on going and going and I got about 20 feet from the door and you could hear the engine out front. Number 11 was out in the front. You could hear the engine. The fireman just broke away and ran for the door.

FIREHOUSE: Could you see then?

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.

FIREHOUSE: Thad, can I get your perspective? When you entered, did you go in with the captain?

MORGAN: Yes, sir.

FIREHOUSE: When you came across the street, what did it look like in the store? Did you take a look? Did you see the column of smoke coming up? As you were walking towards the front, what did you see from the store windows or anything from the door?

MORGAN: It was smoke, black.

FIREHOUSE: What size hose was going inside?

KILCOYNE: When we come in, it was an inch and a half and a booster going to the back. They tried to get a two and a half in there. The two and a half and the booster didn't go all the way to the back. They tied two lines together, that's why they had so much hose. That was the first time 19's has ever been called in front of us and they lost every one of their guys. We've always responded before 19, always.

FIREHOUSE: When you go in with the captain, do you follow this line?

MORGAN: Yes, sir, follow the inch and a half.

FIREHOUSE: How was the visibility when you went inside?

MORGAN: When you walked in the front door, you really couldn't see. You could see the hose maybe five feet in.

FIREHOUSE: As you enter, is it easy to find your way or is it tough as you're following the hose?

MORGAN: It zigzags, it just snakes back in there. If you stay on the hose, it was OK. We ran into a couple of people right here and we got kicked off the hose because people were just coming out.

KILCOYNE: 11's crew was good coming out.

FIREHOUSE: The captain and Thad were a little bit ahead of you?

KILCOYNE: Maybe a minute and a half ahead of me. I was the last one to go in the building on air.

FIREHOUSE: When you go with the captain, you ran into these guys going out. Did you make it all the way to the nozzle?

MORGAN: We made it all the way into that room. The nozzle was kind of coiled up right by the door.

FIREHOUSE: Could you see it?

KILCOYNE: The captain was on the nozzle.

MORGAN: He could see it.

FIREHOUSE: Was he ahead of you?

MORGAN: He was in front. He said go back, give me more hose.

FIREHOUSE: So he had the nozzle and you were feeding him line?

MORGAN: Yes, it was all coiled in and you just couldn't throw it in there. I was sitting on the ground and I was just grabbing what I could and just trying to just pull.

FIREHOUSE: How were the conditions there at that time?

MORGAN: It wasn't hot. You still couldn't see, there was nothing that I heard or saw that told me things were going wrong.

FIREHOUSE: Did you hear anything come over the radio?

MORGAN: I heard people, they needed water. All you could hear were people going back and forth about water. They were telling different engines where to go. It was a couple of minutes I was pulling and it just finally got to the point where it was pointless. I couldn't pull anything else because I was just tugging every damn piece of furniture in there. When I started realizing it was going bad, it was a firefighter who ran me over. He just ran over me and hit me and I mean it didn't faze him one bit.

FIREHOUSE: Were you standing up? Were you kneeling down?

MORGAN: I was kneeling down.

FIREHOUSE: You were kneeling down. He ran into you?

MORGAN: I was just pulling as much as I could and whoever hit me, you figure someone hit you at that speed, someone would try to stop or say what's going on. He just hit me and then he was gone.

FIREHOUSE: Did you get knocked over?

MORGAN: I mean I got knocked to the side. He knocked the hell out of me.

FIREHOUSE: Did anything come over the radio at that time?

MORGAN: It was about a minute after that, when I heard someone say Mayday. That's when you heard the chief and he said everyone get off the radio, somebody is calling Mayday. My first thing was it might have been whoever just ran by me. The dispatch was going back and forth about who it might have been. They said someone did hit their Mayday button. I didn't hear who it was, but they said someone hit their Mayday button and that's when Chief Holmes told everyone get off the radio and was trying to figure who was hitting the Mayday button. A minute or two. It's time to go. We started losing water in the hose.

KILCOYNE: I already came out and went back in.

MORGAN: I didn't know what was going on. That's when you started hearing people on the radio and people saying I'm lost. I heard the prayer. I didn't hear them say tell my wife. I didn't hear that one, but I heard someone say the amen and go through that.

FIREHOUSE: Were you were still there at that point?

MORGAN: I was within 10 feet either way of the doorway. When I stood up is when that hose went soft. I wanted out. I was running low on air too. My vibra-alert didn't go off at that point, but it was close. I stood up, took two steps and that's when Captain Mark ran into me. He ran into me and he just said I'm out of air, I got the hose. That's all I could tell him and he was gone.

KILCOYNE: No, he was just running. He was running in that direction. What he said he did is he messed with this hose and he just picked the direction he thought that the door was and he was just running that way. Then he ran into me. It was just pure luck.

MORGAN: I never ran into him. Captain Mark hit me and that was the only thing I could think of to say is I have the hose. I wanted to get out of there just as quick as he did.

KILCOYNE: His mask was sucking to his face.

MORGAN: It was kind of tick, tick, tick. He was in my face and he scared me. That's all I could say to him was, I got the hose.

KILCOYNE: He ran into me.

FIREHOUSE: How did you get out?

MORGAN: I followed the hose.

KILCOYNE: He come out right behind us. You come out right behind us. Captain Mark and I come out. It was a matter of 15, 20 seconds after I'm going to go back in one more time and then I had 600 pounds. I got my bottle changed. By the time I got my bottle changed, we're talking about 40 seconds now, that whole building lit on fire. They started pulling the two and a half and we started playing the two and a half right there in the doorway. Chief Robert O'Donald and I tried to make entry with that two and a half and that wasn't going to happen. There was just too much fire. We played with that for a little while. My captain was going around to right side of the building where Engine Number 10 was located. I started taking an ax and opening up the tin on the side where they had the hoselines. I just worked my way all the way to the back where they were chopping at the rollup door. Where it wasn't opened up all the way, I would open it up as much as I could.

They started trying to figure out who's in the building that hadn't gotten out. We're thinking is now it's Louis (Mulkey) and his fireman. He's a brand-new fireman, his first day. They're all sitting there trying to figure out where these guys are. It just so happens that firefighter is standing right by me, and one of the other guys recognized him and they said no, he's right here. Now they're just thinking it's Louis in there.

Chief Thomas comes to my captain and gets me, Thad, Mark Davis and John Wynn and Robert O'Donald and he gets up a little group. The roof is already collapsed. They put a lot of the fire out and they're going to send us in on this right side of the building to locate Louis. There was a little area we could get in and get on top of the tin and there wasn't anything over our heads. It was still smoky, but it wasn't that bad. We started pulling the tin back. We're looking for Louis. Chief Robert said we're going to need a piece of equipment to get this moved. And I was sitting there. I said if we could just take it a little at a time, just kind of move it over, we could do that. We took a saw and started chopping the tin up and that wasn't working. There was a four-foot void all the way across the whole store, so what would we would do is pull back some of the tin and we would drop underneath and look.

FIREHOUSE: Is that because it was laying on the furniture?

KILCOYNE: It was laying on the furniture and on the trusses. We would get under there and take flashlights and look. We found a helmet, and the helmet had 19 on it. Someone must have lost that helmet.

FIREHOUSE: What company was Louis from?

KILCOYNE: 15. We ended up in the middle of the store. We were kind of gridding the place off. We're looking up under the tin and I told Captain Mark, I think most of the guys are in the back because that's where they ran into me.

FIREHOUSE: At one point, you were talking about Louis. Did you think that there were other firefighters missing or is it being more apparent because now you're talking about more firefighters?

KILCOYNE: We're still thinking it's just Louis, but we found this helmet with 19 on it.

FIREHOUSE: It's somebody else's helmet?

KILCOYNE: We don't know if it just got lost in the shuffle because we don't know how all these guys got out...We don't know that there was this many firefighters missing. Captain Davis said there he is right there. You could see his cylinder and he was facing going back into the building.

FIREHOUSE: Was that Louis?

KILCOYNE: No. This is where we got all messed up. Chief Wynn said there's another one right there, and there's another body. We're still thinking this is Louis. They got his wallet and it was Brad Baity. Another firefighter found somebody in the back. That ended up being Mark Kelsey or Billy Hutchinson. But that was the four guys that run into me right because they were all right there, that's the only thing I can imagine. The one guy that went between my legs, I never moved my legs. I was standing and he went through my legs with the airpack and it had to be Earl. He's small, real small. He was the smallest. I didn't have to move my legs. He shot between my legs, they were all in a panic, every one of them.

FIREHOUSE: Could you estimate where the hose was to where they were?

KILCOYNE: It was probably about 40 feet. They were 56 feet from the window from the front and they were both going back in the building. They had both got turned around. They were in the middle of the showroom floor, right there in that showroom part

MORGAN: I'd say about 20 feet away from the hose.

FIREHOUSE: When you found three or four, were they sure there were more missing now or did you just continue to look? Were you surprised? You were possibly looking for Louis; is that correct?

KILCOYNE: We were thinking this was Louis the whole time. Then it was two and it still wasn't Louis.

FIREHOUSE: What was going through your mind then?

KILCOYNE: The only reason it went to three because we found this firefighter and we still knew Louis was missing. Louis was one. So it was two. It went to three because we found these so quick. Then it went to five.

MORGAN: Then it went to nine.

KILCOYNE: Then they said it went to eight. Somebody whispered to me and said there might end up being eight. They never counted Brad Baity. They thought he was pumping the truck. They didn't know he was in the fire, so he wasn't even in the count until they figured out who it was.

Their own companies carried them out. Every time, all we would do is get them to right here at the door and they would stop and then the companies, whoever company they were assigned, would come in and grab the stokes basket and the chief would lead them all out. They would say a prayer for them and then they would carry them to the hearse.

If you moved off that hoseline or you got in that furniture, you were lost, because it was all different kind of furniture. It was some rounded couches, chairs. It's like a maze. It just turned you around and got you lost.

FIREHOUSE: Was most of that furniture burnt when you found the firefighters?

KILCOYNE: It was disintegrated. It was gone.

FIREHOUSE: From the time you went outside and they were looking for Louis until the time they found the last person, could you estimate how long that was?

KILCOYNE: It was still daylight. I can do it like this. It was still daylight when we went in that building searching for Louis. It was 6:30 in the morning when we found the last person. When we come outside, we had to find my engine because somebody took my engine and laid hose with it and it ended up being a couple of blocks down. We hung out in the parking lot. We just hung out in the parking lot and just kind of everybody was in their own little world.