Tuesday marks 12 years since 9 Charleston firefighters died battling furniture store fire

Updated: Jun. 18, 2019 at 5:20 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston Fire Department will remember the nine firefighters who died 12 years ago in a massive furniture store fire in West Ashley.

The department will hold at the Charleston 9 Memorial Park, which was built on the site of the former store, 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Starting at midnight Tuesday morning, firefighters began a 24-hour watch at the park’s flagpole. That park contains markers for each of the nine firefighters killed that evening.

Crews responded at 7:09 p.m. to a fire reported at the back of the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway on the evening of June 18, 2007. Within forty minutes, the store would be engulfed in flames, nine firefighters would be lost, and our community would be changed forever.

The scene of the fire on June 18, 2007 (Source: Live 5)
The scene of the fire on June 18, 2007 (Source: Live 5)

By 7:23 p.m., smoke and fire could be seen above the West showroom where three of the firefighters were later found.

Just after 7:30 p.m., a mayday call goes out over the radio, followed by a message believed to be for one of the men’s wives: “I love you.”

As a last-ditch effort, firefighters smashed the front windows to clear smoke out and give firefighters inside a chance to escape. Within minutes, the showroom went up in flames.

At 7:45 p.m., the roof of the showroom collapsed.

By 10 p.m., the fire was under control. But the full devastation wasn’t known until early the next morning when all nine were finally accounted for.

The firefighters who died while working to make sure no employees were trapped inside the building were:

  • Engineer Bradford "Brad" Baity, of Engine 19
  • Capt. Mike Benke of Engine 16
  • Firefighter Melvin Champaign, of Engine 16
  • Firefighter James "Earl" Drayton, of Engine 19
  • Asst. Engineer Michael French, of Ladder 5
  • Capt. William Hutchinson, of Engine 19
  • Engineer Mark Kelsey, of Ladder 5
  • Capt. Louis Mulkey, of Engine 15
  • Firefighter Brandon Thompson, of Ladder 5.

Fire investigators believe a discarded cigarette tossed on the loading dock out back where highly flammable and combustible liquids were being improperly stored alongside discarded furniture is the most likely cause of the fire that day.

Firefighters work to contain the fire on June 18, 2007. (Source: Live 5)
Firefighters work to contain the fire on June 18, 2007. (Source: Live 5)

At the time, the incident bore the highest number of firefighter fatalities in a single event since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Charleston Fire Department officials said automatic aid agreements with several fire departments and better firefighter training are among the changes they say have helped save lives. The fire also brought new procedures for entering a building or home during a fire.

Since the fire, the department also has brought in new equipment, including a hook and ladder truck, that can turn narrow corners.

Other changes that were made include a multi-year training plan and promotional testing for firefighters.

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