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: 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.