CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas has defended the deployment of firefighters into a burning furniture store where nine of them died, referring to a report that a store employee was trapped inside.
But the fire chief declined yesterday to provide details of events leading to the greatest single-day loss of life for firefighters in the nation since the Sept. 11 attacks, deferring questions as the department prepares for memorial services and federal agents investigate.
Still, another firefighter described a dramatic rescue of a store employee and air horn blasts from fire engines signaling an immediate evacuation just minutes before a rolling ball of flame and gas swept through the Sofa Super Store, apparently trapping firefighters.
Firefighters working from outside the building found store employee Jonathan Tyrell in a rear workshop as he banged away with a hammer to attract attention. They pulled him to safety after using axes to chop a hole in a metal exterior wall, said Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin.
"The room was full of smoke," Garvin said. "A few more minutes, and I'm sure he wouldn't be with us."
A timeline published in the local paper, The Post and Courier, which cited unidentified Fire Department officials, indicated Tyrell was pulled from the building five minutes before the fire exploded through the store.
Yesterday, Charleston continued to mourn the loss of the firefighters. Police cars and fire engines served as escorts as hearses moved the remains of the firemen from a county morgue to funeral homes in preparation for burial. A citywide memorial service is scheduled for tomorrow.
Rain was hindering an investigation of the fire's cause by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
During a brief interview, Thomas explained the firefighters' presence inside the burning building by referring to a call from Tyrell: "There was a 911 call that there was someone trapped in the building." Tyrell was patched through to fire officials on the scene by a 911 operator.
At the time, 17 firefighters were inside the building, Thomas said. Eight made it out safely.
Robert Duval, senior fire investigator for the National Fire Protection Association, a professional standards-setting organization, said commanders on a fire scene typically weigh a number of factors in deciding whether to remain inside a building to fight a blaze. That includes the possibility that people are trapped inside, as well as the type of structure and how fast the fire is spreading. Upholstered furniture is highly combustible, and the building had no sprinkler system.
Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune.