Sifting the Ashes of a Deadly S.C. Blaze

The firefighters at Station 19 weren't sure what to do with themselves Wednesday, just two days after nine colleagues died fighting a fire. One sat with his back to a big television that was playing with the volume off. Capt. Patrick Sandford stood weeping by the neatly made bed of Capt. Mike Benke, a NASCAR fan and father of three who was killed. The phone rang endlessly: there were funeral plans to be made, remains to be identified.

At Station 11, a squat brick building just down the road from the charred remains of the Sofa Super Store, Capt. Jack deTournillon and his colleagues unloaded masks, soiled gear and used air tanks from Engine 11, one of the first trucks on the scene. As they took inventory of missing gear and used nozzles, adults and children from the community arrived with flowers, food and hand-drawn cards of sympathy. A member of Company 11 who has been in the fire service for 16 years had fingernails still dirty from the evening's work. His wife, Melissa, who spent Tuesday night at a prayer vigil, says her heart goes out to the wives whose husbands didn't make it home. "You have to realize, they're all family," she told NEWSWEEK. "It's not like an office where you get up and go to work and come home every day. My son said, 'I lost nine uncles all at one time'."

As investigators search for answers about the cause of the blaze, the Charleston community—wives, sons, uncles—and the firemen left behind are trying to make sense of what happened when the Sofa Super Store's roof collapsed. Early reports indicated that the flames started as a "trash fire." Firefighters responding to the scene called for backup as the blaze spread between rows of furniture and mattresses stacked to the ceiling. There is, as yet, no suspicion of arson, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division are investigating.

Wednesday afternoon, a sad procession was underway. In the rain, a fleet of fire engines and other official vehicles escorted the bodies of the fallen from the Medical University of South Carolina to area funeral homes that will host services later in the week.

In this tight-knit community, it seems nearly everbody has a connection to the tragedy. Dr. Kim A. Collins, a forensic pathologist at Medical University, faced an especially grim task. She's spent the past few days examining bodies, determining the causes of death for members of the Charleston Fire Department, men she considers her colleagues. "When we have other deaths, we would go to the scenes and these are the people we were working with," says Dr. Collins. "Now, your comrades are your victims … Any time you know the person … [it's] hard to fathom."

Ronnie Classen, assistant chief of the Charleston Fire Department, has been in the department since 1971; he assisted in retrieving the bodies. Classen says he's trying to hide his pain and carry on with his duties. "From my point of view, I am dealing with it as best I can," says Classen, choking back tears. "And I say, that's very badly."

Johnny Ray Tyrrell, the only Sofa Super Store employee who was trapped in the building when the fire erupted but made it out alive, spent Wednesday torn between feelings of gratitude and sadness. Tyrrell was assembling a white cabinet in a back room of the store when flames overtook all the exits. He called 911 and spent two minutes hammering away at an exhaust fan, hoping to knock it out of the wall and climb through the opening. Firefighters eventually cut through the wall and carried him out.

"It's just, you know, kind of overwhelming," Tyrrell told NEWSWEEK, standing in his backyard. "I know there were nine firefighters who died in that fire, and the two that brought me out went back inside. I was trying to get away from the fire and they were running to it. I thank God every day for them because it takes a special group of people to do that."