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Fire captain: Firefighters might have been killed by flashover

CHARLESTON, SC (WIS/AP) - A Charleston fire captain says nine firefighters killed in a fire in a furniture warehouse might have died in a flashover, a sudden expansion of the flames.

Captain Jeff Harrison lost three crew members Monday night.

Harrison says the fire wasn't that big when firefighters went in to rescue two employees. He says while they attacked the flames, the blaze may have gotten enough oxygen to flash through the building.

He says in a flashover, gases heat a building and contents so intensely they burst into flames.

Furniture buildings are vulnerable because of wood lacquer, polyurethane foam and other combustibles.

The building had no sprinklers and was not required to.

Fire Chief Rusty Thomas says sprinklers would not have stopped the flames, but might have slowed them.

The deaths of the nine firefighters in Monday night in Charleston is the largest loss of firefighters in the United States since the September 11th terror attacks.

The National Fire Protection Association says the nine deaths is the most since 340 firefighters, two paramedics and a chaplain died on September 11th in New York City.

The mayor of Charleston described the nine firemen Monday as brave, heroic, and courageous because the fact is, they were trying to save a life when they lost theirs.

"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 Joseph P. Riley said at a Monday news conference. "To all of their loved ones, our heart goes out to them."

The mayor also described the disaster as "difficult to fathom or quantify."

Officials have identified the nine firefighters who were killed. The men had worked for the department anywhere from 18 months to 30 years. Killed were:

  • Capt. William "Billy" Hutchinson, 48
  • Capt. Mike Benke, 49
  • Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34
  • Engineer Mark Kelsey, 40
  • Engineer Bradford "Brad" Baity, 37
  • Assistant Engineer Michael French, 27
  • Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, 56
  • Firefighter Brandon Thompson, 27
  • Firefighter Melven Champaign, 46

Mayor Riley says there is no indication of arson, but he says the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the State Law Enforcement Division are investigating. Officials say it appears to have started in a storage area.

When firefighters first arrived, they entered the inferno to rescue what they were told were two trapped employees.

They found one, then re-entered for the second, when the unthinkable happened.

The intense heat essentially melted the structure supporting the roof and it collapsed.

Riley says two employees in the store made it out safely.

The mayor says the fire is a tragic event for the community and difficult to comprehend the magnitude.

The fire broke out about 7pm Monday evening at the Sofa Super Store and warehouse. It was a massive fire, fueled by all the wood and flammable material inside.

One witness described the fire as being like "a 30-foot tornado of flames."

Another witness said, "It came from nowhere. It was a standing structure and five seconds later it was on the ground."

The department has 237 firefighters in 19 companies located throughout the city. Firefighters saluted as the bodies of their colleagues were taken from the warehouse.

Chief Rusty Thomas says his department has a "long road ahead," but he says they're "going to stand tall."

President Bush says the commitment of the firefighters is "an inspiration to all Americans."

Governor Mark Sanford ordered that flags be lowered to half-staff on state buildings, and the Columbia fire chief was looking into what kind of help Columbia firefighters can give.

"I think it brings now to all of us the thought that this could happen to here to anyone and a lot of the firefighters here know the firefighters there," said Columbia Fire Chaplain Michael Bingham. "Theres a deep connection between the departments, so some of them are feeling personal grief in that way too."

Chaplain Bingham will be available to the firefighters in Columbia who are dealing with this tragedy.

A representative from the department also said that all Columbia fire stations are on standby right now.

There will be a public memorial for the fallen firefighters, planned for 10:00am Friday at the North Charleston Coliseum.

As a result of the outpouring of support and requests from the community on how they can help, a fund has been established for those wanting to make donations. Donations can be dropped off at any branch of Bank of America or sent to:

City of Charleston Fireman's Fund
c/o Bank of America
P.O. Box 304
Charleston, South Carolina  29402

The Monday night blaze was the deadliest fire in the state since 11 people died in a fire at the Lancaster County jail in 1979.

State and federal officials are investigating.

Posted by Bryce Mursch

Story pictures and video provided by WISTV Raycom Media. Copyright 2007 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. AP contributed to this report.

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