WEST ASHLEY, S.C. Nine firefighters died Monday night in a fire that destroyed the Sofa Super Store in West Ashley.
It was the worst single loss of firefighters since 9/11, according to a spokesman from the U.S. Fire Administration, which tracks fire deaths and injuries.
“Nine brave, heroic, courageous firefighters of the city of Charleston have perished fighting fire in a most courageous and fearless manner, carrying out their duties,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said at a news conference this morning. “To all of their loved ones, our heart goes out to them.”
The firefighters who perished in the blaze were:
Captain William “Billy” Hutchinson, 48, 30 years of service; Captain Mike Benke, 49, 29 years of service; Captain Louis Mulkey, 34, 11.5 years of service; Engineer Mark Kelsey, 40, 12.5 years of service; Engineer Bradford “Brad” Baity, 37, 9 years of service; Asst. Engineer Michael French, 27, 1.5 years of service; Firefighter James “Earl” Drayton, 56, 32 years of service; Firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27, 4 years of service; Firefighter Melven Champaign, 46, 2 years of service.
Riley said that in his time as mayor, to his knowledge, the city has not lost a firefighter in the line of duty.
No arson is suspected, Riley said, but the State Law Enforcement Division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating.
Police Chief Greg Mullen said Fire Chief Rusty Thomas was on scene all night until the bodies of all nine firefighters were removed from the rubble.
“Chief Thomas is a true leader,” Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
Just before 8 a.m. Savannah Highway reopened to traffic.
Chief Thomas met with many families of the victims last night at Station 11.
“I can t even imagine what the firefighters are going through, it s just indescribable,” Mullen said. “The way to continue to honor the sacrifice they made is to go back to work and make sure you live up to what they would do if they were still alive. That is their legacy.”
At about 7:45 p.m., the front of the store collapsed and sent a roaring ball of burning debris rolling above about two dozen rescue workers’ heads.
Hundreds of onlookers were pelted with hot ash.
Mark Hilton of Ridgeville said he could feel the sting as a piece of ash went into an eye. He was mesmerized by the sight of the large furniture store and its adjacent warehouse ablaze.
“It was like a 30-foot tornado of flames,” he said.
Riley said he thought all of the store workers made it from the building. At least one was taken to the hospital, he said.
Daniel Shahid, a salesman at nearby Morris Nissan, said he was working when a firefighter came inside and asked for towels.
“The next thing you know, we were carrying hoses, directing traffic everybody from the dealership,” he said.
He said he watched as firefighters brought four people out of the building.
“They were struggling. They were covered in black soot. They looked scared out of their minds.”
The store, at 1807 Savannah Highway, caught fire shortly after 6:30 p.m. About 30 employees work there daily, according to a business spokesman.
Sylvester Washington, an employee, had just left.
His parents had come inside to look at furniture. They then drove to a nearby neighborhood to look at a house. When they drove back by the store about 15 minutes later and saw the fire, Washington searched the crowd for his co-workers.
A frantic Toni Tyrrell arrived about 7:30 p.m. to look for her husband, Jonathan, who was working at the store Monday. She was concerned because he was not answering his cell phone.
Washington’s father, Chase Sandred, watched as two firefighters leaped through ground-floor windows to escape to safety.
“I guess it was just too much for them,” he said.
Dozens of firefighters from agencies around the region worked late into the night to control the fire. Savannah Highway was blocked by all the equipment. Rain began to fall at about 11 p.m., creating additional smoke during the rescue effort.
The roofs of the business had collapsed and the site was reduced to rubble.