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Remembering the Charleston Nine

Ten years ago on June 18, a call was received for a fire in the Sofa Super Store located at 1807 Savannah Highway. The fire would start in the loading dock behind the store and eventually would take over the rest of the 42,000 square foot structure. The following Brothers would make the supreme sacrifice.

The Charleston 9, as the victims came to be known, died at the scene of the fire on the evening of June 18, 2007.

The victims were Engineer Bradford “Brad” Baity, of Engine 19; Capt. Mike Benke of Engine 16; Firefighter Melvin Champaign, of Engine 16; Fire- fighter James “Earl” Drayton, of Engine 19; Asst. Engineer Michael French, of Ladder 5; Capt. William Hutchinson, of Engine 19; Engineer Mark Kelsey, of Ladder 5; Capt. Louis Mulkey, of Engine 15; and Firefighter Brandon Thompson, of Ladder 5.

The building had no fire sprinkler system. The fire started at approximately 7:00 p.m. in a covered loading dock area built between the showroom and warehouse buildings which was attached to both buildings.

At the time, the business was still open and employees were present. Charleston firefighters arrived on the scene within three minutes of the alarm, followed soon after by firefighters from the St. Andrews Public Service District.

The initial attack focused on extinguishing the fire in the loading dock area, with a secondary effort to search for and evacuate people inside, and prevent the fire from spreading to the showroom and warehouse. Crews entering the showroom reportedly initially encountered clear visibility with only very light puffs of smoke visible near the ceiling at the back of the showroom.

Shortly thereafter, an exterior door was opened near where the fire was raging. Efforts to close the door failed, allowing the fire to enter the showroom. Firefighters were ordered to stretch two hose lines into the showroom to attack the spreading fire; however, the pre-connected hose line from one of the units was too short. This required some firefighters to again exit the building to add additional sections of hose, and left only one small handline to hold back the growing fire. At about this time, fire dispatchers advised the crews on-scene that they had received a 9-1-1 call from an employee who was trapped in the warehouse, which required some firefighters to direct their attention to the rescue. The trapped employee was eventually rescued by firefighters who breached an exterior wall to reach him.

Despite efforts to confine and extinguish the fire, it continued to spread into the structure and ignited furniture in the showroom, growing more quickly than the few operating hose lines could control. Meanwhile efforts to stretch and begin operating additional hose lines continued. At 7:41 p.m. the showroom area of the store experienced a flashover while at least sixteen firefighters were still working inside. The flashover contributed to the rapid deterioration of the structural integrity of the building, leading to a near-complete collapse of the roof just minutes later. Many of the firefighters caught in the flashover were unable to escape and were trapped under the collapsed roof and shelving weakened by the fast-spreading fire. Several calls for help were made by trapped firefighters and efforts to rescue them were commenced. These efforts proved unsuccessful. By the time the fire was brought under control, nine Charleston firefighters had been killed.

The remains of the building were demolished and a memorial site was created in its place.

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