Starting point of fatal fire found

Blaze that killed nine began in smoke-break area

June 24, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The furniture store blaze that killed nine firefighters last week started in an enclosed loading dock, federal investigators said yesterday.

A Sofa Super Store employee told the Associated Press that the area was used for smoke breaks. The Charlotte Observer reported Friday that the structure that enclosed the loading dock at the showroom and warehouse complex on Savannah Highway was built without a building permit sometime in the past nine years.

The announcement yesterday by Special Agent Ken Chisholm of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ends the on-scene investigation for the agency, which is also trying to find the cause of the fire and piece together events that led to the deaths Monday evening.

Chisholm would not give any details about what might have caused the fire, and would not say in what area of the loading dock the fire started.

Fire experts said the enclosed structure could have made it easier for the fire to spread. If the structure were not built to code, it could have accelerated the blaze.

The owner of the discount furniture store, Herbert Goldstein, had not returned calls to the Observer and could not be reached at his home yesterday.

The funerals for six of the nine fallen firefighters were held yesterday. They were spaced throughout the day so the mayor and fire officials could attend each. A firetruck carried each coffin, draped in an American flag, to the burial site as firefighters in dress uniform saluted.

The firefighters died inside the furniture complex, which was engulfed in flames. The fire call came in a few minutes after 7 p.m. The only employee at the site was rescued by a second group of firefighters, from the nearby St. Andrews, S.C., fire department.

Chisholm would not give a fuller timeline of events that led to the deaths. Officials have said that confidentiality is critical to maintaining the integrity of their investigation.

But Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. offered a glimpse into the sequence of events. He said that the firefighters who died were already inside the burning building by the time the employee was located and rescued.

The employee, Jonathan Tyrrell III, told firefighters who cut through a wall and pulled him from a smoke-filled workroom at the rear of the building that he was the only one in the complex.

Firefighters who were at the scene said that the roof collapsed about 8 p.m., and that 30 minutes later two men were confirmed dead and five missing.

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