Inside the Charleston Fire That Killed Nine

Monday was chicken pot-pie night at Fire Station 11 in Charleston, South Carolina, and the firefighters on duty were just finishing up dinner when the call came in a little after 7 p.m. The Sofa Super Store half a mile down Savannah Highway was burning. "There's a big fire in the back of the warehouse!" an unidentified man had told the 911 dispatcher. Station 11 quickly got into its gear and headed for its rig, Engine 11.

Every shift in the firehouse brought the possibility of a major blaze, and the risk of injury or death is always in the back of a firefighter's mind. But what started as a routine call that night ended in a tragedy that took the lives of nine firefighters—the most to die in one place since September 11—and has left a tight-knit Southern community in mourning. The story of that night—assembled from interviews with firefighters, family members and public officials and from 911 and dispatch transcripts and other official documents—is one of senseless loss. But it is also a tale of valor in the face of grave danger.

Days after the flames were extinguished, it is still not entirely clear how the fire started. Some employees believe that it may possibly have been touched off inadvertently when a worker, taking a smoke break out back by the loading dock, dropped a cigarette butt near a heap of trash and then headed home for the night. Authorities have confirmed only that the blaze began in a pile of trash in the loading-dock area.

Not long after the first flames flared, 911 began receiving calls. Among them was a woman who said she was at the store. "The back of the building is on fire," she told the dispatcher. Some of the calls were routed to Gene Barrineau, a dispatcher since 2006. Before that, he'd spent 35 years with the fire department. Barrineau ordered firefighters from two stations to respond to the scene. Engine 11 was one of them. On board was William Johnson, a married father of four who was acting captain. With him were two other men: Rookie T.J. Axson, a 19-year old who'd only been on the job since December; and David Griffin, 27, an experienced assistant engineer. The battalion chief on duty, George "Buddy" Aytes, was having dinner at Station 11. As it happened, so was Larry Garvin, an assistant Charleston fire chief. Both of them headed toward the fire. Another truck, Ladder 5, also headed out. Michael "Frenchie" French, a handsome 27-year old with chiseled features, drove that truck. Among those with him was Brandon Thompson, 27, who'd started his career in fire service when he was 14 and was planning his upcoming wedding. Thompson wasn't scheduled to be on duty that night, but was working a buddy shift for a friend.

From the moment Engine 11 pulled out of the station house, the guys could see the smoke rising from the 30,000 square-foot building, where mattresses and sofas were stacked to the ceiling. Engine 11 and another truck, Engine 10, arrived three minutes after the first 911 call.

Back at the 911 center, the dispatcher received another urgent call, this one from Johnny Ray Tyrrell, a Sofa Super Store employee who was trapped inside the building, in the warehouse behind the showroom. The only doors out were blocked by flames, the electricity had just gone out and the room he was in was filled with flammable cans of aerosol. The 50-year-old building, which used to house a Piggly Wiggly grocery store before the furniture store opened there 16 years ago, had no fire sprinklers. Frantically, Tyrrell grabbed a hammer and began pounding away at a vent, hoping to dislodge it from the wall and make a hole big enough to crawl out of. "He said, "I'm trapped and I can't hardly breathe,'" recalls Gene Barrineau. ""I got a wife and baby!'" Tyrrell himself remembers fearing for his life. "I can't die like this," he pleaded. Black smoke was making it hard to breathe and see. Barrineau ordered him to lie down on the floor. He put out a call over the radio that a man was trapped. Tyrrell kept slamming the walls with his hammer in hopes that the noise would help rescuers find him.

Outside, the firefighters got to work. While Engine 10 attacked the fire near the loading dock where the showroom adjoined the warehouse in back, Garvin led the men from Engine 11, Johnson and Axson, into the front of the store. The room seemed to be clear of fire." When I walked in that building it was crystal clear," Garvin told the Associated Press. "There was no smoke in that building whatsoever." He reported that he entered the building three times during the next five minutes as the smoke grew thicker, but, he said, it seemed safe enough for his men to work the fire from the inside. Then Garvin opened the door leading to the deck between the buildings. "There was nothing but fire," Johnson said. He and Garvin struggled to shut the door and Garvin ordered his men to get a hose in. "Things did not happen like they normally happen," Garvin said. "If there had been fire rolling out of those back doors, I wouldn't have sent them in. I don't care anything about a building."

As Johnson and Axson headed out to bring in a hose, the guys from Ladder 5, Frenchie, Kelsey and Thompson, were on their way in. They stood at the front of the blaze, wielding an inch-and-a-half hose. Mark Kelsey, 40, a rebel who liked to buck company protocol by showing up at dress events in jeans, was on the nozzle at the front of the line, with Frenchie and Thompson behind him.

Meanwhile, Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas arrived on the scene. He'd been out with his wife Carol when the call came in, and the two immediately drove to the warehouse, arriving five minutes later. Thomas left Carol sitting in the car and joined the other commanders. The fire was spreading quickly, and chiefs on the scene called for reinforcements. More trucks from across the city rushed to the fire. Engine 15 pulled up carrying Capt. Louis Mulkey, Mike Walker and rookie Scott Thomas, who was working his very first shift. They hurried into the building to assist. Engine 16 brought Mike Benke, a married father of three and a 29-year veteran of the department. With him was Melvin Champaign, an aspiring pastor whose flashy clothes earned him the affectionate nickname "Pimp Daddy" and engineer Art Wittner. Engine 19 carried James "Earl" Allen Drayton, Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson and Brad Baity.

There was a problem. The hose from Engine 11 wasn't long enough, according to firefighters on the scene. Johnson and Axson emerged from the building and ran back to the rig. They connected the truck's right and left hoses to double its length to 500 feet. They ran back in with the longer hose. But the flames and smoke were spreading. Benke, a seasoned fighter who often trained others in the department, noticed the blaze was becoming more and more difficult to control. "If this fire gets behind us, we're in trouble," he told a man from another company.
By now, word was spreading throughout the Charleston Fire Department. Off-duty firefighters began showing up. One was Captain Patrick Sandford of Station 16. Monday night he was just finishing up at his second job as a home contractor when he got a call about the fire. The tall, lean, 45-year old captain drove his brown F150 pickup to the warehouse in shorts and a knit shirt, not stopping to pick up his fire gear, to see what he could do to help. When he arrived, the showroom was not yet completely engulfed, but the warehouse was furiously burning. Sandford parked his truck and waded into the lot, which was already crowded with firemen, on and off duty, from more than five stations.

At this point, the smoke was so thick the fire was no longer visible to the firefighters in the rear. Inside the building, firefighters were waiting for more water to run a larger hose. Johnson, Engine 11's captain, decided to duck outside to investigate the holdup. As he took a few steps everything turned pitch black. Staring into the smoke from behind his face shield, sucking oxygen from a tank, he couldn't see far enough to find the door. Johnson put the hose between his legs and followed it out, hand over hand. Johnson went around the side of the building, and Battalion Chief Aytes ordered him to help three guys from Company 10 run a new hose to the building.

Meanwhile, still trapped inside the warehouse, Tyrrell lay on the floor hammering away at the wall. Suddenly, an axe came busting through. Two firefighters pulled Tyrrell from the back of store and out of the building.

It would be one of the few bright moments of the night. The fire was gaining in heat and strength, overwhelming the firefighters. Radio traffic between the dispatchers and fire and police officials began to pile up. The radio transmissions were "walking" all over each other, the dispatcher said. In the confusion, someone radioed that there was a second employee trapped in the building. "They've gotten one guy out and we're going back for another," a voice says on the dispatch tape. Some firefighters were also having trouble finding their way out. Just moments after Tyrrell was rescued, the first maydays started coming over the radio from men inside the building. One or two men called out for Capt. Louis Mulkey. Another voice described worsening conditions. "Chief, the fire's not under control any more." Station 15's Mike Walker appeared at one of the showroom windows banging to get out. Sandford helped smashed the window and grabbed Walker. "When I reached in to pull him out, he was so hot, it burned my hand," Sandford said, looking down at his palm.

At the front of the line, the heat and smoke and flames overtook everything around the firefighters. If a man is in trouble and unable to radio for help, he can push an orange "mercy" button on his jacket that sends out an emergency signal. At the dispatch center, Mike French's signal went off. The dispatcher asked for a verbal confirmation of the distress call. Frenchie, an avid sportsman who had been hanging around fire stations since he was 13, was silent. "He never did respond," recalls dispatcher Gene Barrineau.

Mayday calls were coming over radio and Chief Thomas, recognizing the severity of the situation, ordered everyone out. Johnson jumped on Engine 11 and hit the airhorn to warn firefighters to leave the building. By this point the smoke was visible miles away. "It looked like hell was burning," said Capt Brian Kropp.

Then the roof came down. A fire with ample fuel and oxygen will double in size every 60 seconds. As the sun was setting at around 7:30 p.m., the roof was so compromised the center section "pancaked" down. But by then, it was likely the nine firefighters still inside—Bradford "Brad" Baity, Capt. Mike Benke, Melvin Champaign, James "Earl" Drayton, Michael French, Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, Mark Kelsey, Capt. Louis Mulkey and Brandon Thompson— had already succumbed. Six of them were from Station 16. "By the end it was just boiling in there," Sandford said, tears running down his face.

As soon as the scorching heat subsided, Chief Thomas sent in recovery teams to comb through the blistered wreckage and locate the fallen men. The scene inside was dismal. The hoses had burned through, severing the lifeline out of the building. Lengths of firehoses are coupled together with a male-female coupling. The female part always faces toward the outside, and firefighters "follow the females" out when the smoke is too thick to distinguish the path. Fire captains and chiefs stayed with the bodies until the coroner finished preliminary exams and the remains were carried out through a gauntlet of saluting firefighters. The last body was transported just as the sun began to rise.

While grief spread across the town, some fire fighters remained at scene. Hot spots, or small patches of fire, continued to sprout up as late as Thursday. Families brought sandwiches and pastry to the firehouses. By Friday, it seemed all of Charleston gathered to recognize the contribution the firefighters had made. A procession of 150 fire trucks, some from other states, drove slowly through downtown Charleston. They went past the firehouses of the first two responding stations and the burned hulk of the furniture store, to a memorial service attended by the families of the fallen and thousands of firefighters from around the nation.

For many men who were on the scene that night, there's no question the fire chiefs responded appropriately. "No one would have done anything differently," said Chief Spencer Suggs, who has been in the department for 23 years. We would have pulled our lines up and we would have gone inside. We can look at buildings and say we've gone too far. We knew what we were doing when we got there. They thought the building was safe to rescue a person and get the fire out." The rank and file seemed to resent the tone of questions from investigators and reporters. "Everyone at the scene was doing what they were trained to do," says Engine 11's Johnson. "The biggest thing I hate about this whole event is that they're just looking for someone to pin it on."

Others believe that officials should have known of the risk. Benke's wife, Kim, told the Charleston Post and Courier that her husband had long thought the Sofa Super Store was a fire hazard. "Every time we rode past it, he said it was a nightmare. I know that's a deathtrap because he told it to me so many times. I didn't know it would be his."

As questions were raised about the cause and response to the fire, employees of the Sofa Super Store provided some possible clues about how the fire may have started. Rashaun Gantt, 22, was the repair-shop manager and spent his days working on furniture in the shop behind the showroom. At around 6:30 p.m. Monday evening, Gantt and at least three other warehouse workers stood on the loading dock smoking cigarettes, a last break before clocking out at 6:40, locking up and heading home. Next to the loading dock, there was a rubbish pile of broken furniture waiting to be picked up. They sat outside, smoking their Kools, Newports and Camel Lights. Nearby was a large wood bin filled with office trash—cardboard, plastic and paper. Gantt said they weren't always careful about where the spent butts landed. And when they left that night, they didn't realize Tyrrell had stayed behind. "We didn't even know John was there," said Sylvestor Washington, an employee at the store. Gantt said it wasn't too long after he was heading home that one of the guys "chirped" him on his Nextel to say the building was on fire.

Nine families now cope with the loss of husbands, fathers, brothers. Benke's daughter, Holly Gildea, 30, is seven months pregnant with her third child. "It's not real yet," she says. "I still want to call his phone and hear him on the other end of it. Or at least hear his voicemail or something." The night of the fire, she and her husband, an Iraq War vet who returned a few months ago, went down to the Sofa Super Store to find out if Benke was all right. Later, they went to Station 11 with other families and awaited word about what happened. Around 11:40 she tried calling her father again, figuring that if he were alive he would have been given a break from the flames. When he didn't answer she knew something wasn't right. Thirty minutes later, she heard the news.

Some of the men who survived are left to deal with mixed feelings of their own. Relief for having gotten out alive, but sadness that not every man did. Chief Spencer Suggs couldn't speak of the fallen firefighters without being overcome by emotion. "It's hard to talk about them," he said. "Every one of these fellows, you've played softball and golf and basketball with them, we've gone fishing together, hunting. It's a family. Not like a brother, but a real brother, because you do something for them. And they do it for you."