NIST shows sprinklers at sofa store could have prevented fire’s rapid spread

Updated: Oct. 28, 2010 at 11:03 PM EDT
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NIST re-creation showing the benefit of sprinklers in the store fire.
NIST re-creation showing the benefit of sprinklers in the store fire.
NIST diagram of the Sofa Super Store's general layout.
NIST diagram of the Sofa Super Store's general layout.
Aerial photo showing placement of fire personnel and spread of fire.
Aerial photo showing placement of fire personnel and spread of fire.

By Sam Tyson email | Twitter and Harve Jacobs bio | email | Twitter

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Federal officials Thursday released the results of an extensive study into the fire that killed nine Charleston firefighters more than three years ago.

The 700-page report detailed failures in training and equipment in use by the Charleston Fire Department as well as numerous code violations in a building that housed highly flammable furniture. The report said large open spaces with furniture provided high fuel loads and the inward rush of air following the breaking of windows and the lack of sprinklers contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

"When the front windows were broken out or vented, additional oxygen allowed the heat release rate of the fire to intensify rapidly and to ignite the layer of unburned fuel below the drop ceiling," the report stated.

The result was a fire that ended with the greatest loss of firefighters' lives since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trace Center in New York City.

The Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology released the study and a computer-simulated re-creation of the fire that was used in the agency's investigation. The computer model helped investigators determine why the Sofa Super Store fire spread so quickly, why the building collapsed and whether sprinklers could have prevented any loss of life.

The computer model showed that the addition of automatic sprinklers inside the loading dock could have slowed the fire significantly, prevented it from spreading beyond the dock, and eventually extinguished it completely. The computer model also showed sprinklers on the loading dock likely would have allowed individuals to escape unassisted.

The report made 11 recommendations to enhance building, occupant and firefighter safety nation-wide. Those recommendations include having all state and local jurisdictions adopt model building and fire codes to address high fuel load commercial spaces. The NIST report also recommended agencies ensure that hazardous conditions -- a lack of appropriate fire doors, fire walls and sprinkler systems -- are corrected. The report says all state and local jurisdictions should implement aggressive fire inspection and enforcement programs and ensure inspectors are professionally qualified to a national standard.

The NIST study suggested that all state and local authorities should adopt and enforce model codes that require automatic sprinkler systems for all new commercial retail furniture stores with any single display area greater than 2,000 feet.

The Sofa Super Store was a 42,000-square foot structure.

Hours after the NIST report was released, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Fire Chief Thomas Carr held a press conference to address the findings.

Riley said city and fire officials had not yet had the time to fully review the NIST report, but they would be so that they could learn "anything new we can to help the fire department and the community."

The mayor also said the nine firefighters were likely already dead by the time the front windows of the store were busted out to improve ventilation. A coroner's report concluded the nine men died from thermal burns or smoke inhalation, not from crushing injuries that would have come from the roof's collapse.

Carr said the department has taken great strides in improving training and equipment. "We haven't gotten where we need to be yet," he said.

Officials have also been active in Columbia over the last two years, pushing to enact legislation requiring sprinklers for businesses, Carr said. The legislation, however, has stalled in the Statehouse.

Carr called the NIST report another ally in pushing through the legislation.

The attorney for the Sofa Super Store, Richard Rosen, issued a statement Thursday afternoon that pointed to a city inspection dated more than a year before the fire.

"The fact that this building contained a large quantity of furniture and was not equipped with sprinklers was noted by the City. It was found to be in compliance with applicable codes. The report as well as hand-drawn sketches by fire inspectors did not reveal any violations or recommendations by fire inspectors," he said in the statement.

Rosen went on to say it critical that proper tactics are used to fight fires. "Fortunately, the Charleston Fire Department is now taking steps to ensure that it is able to respond effectively to fires of the magnitude."

The NIST study is one of two studies prosecutors were awaiting to determine whether criminal charges will be filed against the store's owners.

In many ways, the NIST report echoed an earlier report filed by experts hired by the city. In that report, the experts concluded the firefighters did not follow standard safety practices, lacked essential training and used obsolete equipment. That same report, however, stated a sprinkler system would have likely confined the fire to the loading dock where it started.

The 272-page city-appointed panel's report said the system of firefighter training and development as well as the outdated equipment contributed to an overall ineffective response by CFD. Undersized hoses left firefighters without the water they needed to contain the fire which was burning in the ceiling above their heads, the report stated.

Ultimately, the panel of experts determined that the fire department's approach to battling fires in the historic homes of downtown Charleston left them completely unprepared for a massive blaze at a sprawling furniture store full of flammable goods.

"The culture of the Charleston Fire Department promoted aggressive offensive tactics that exposed firefighters to excessive and avoidable risks and failed to apply basic firefighter safety practices," the report said. "The strategy and tactics attempted by Department members were inappropriate for the situation and exposed the firefighters to extreme and unnecessary risks."

Then-Chief Rusty Thomas retired shortly after the panel's findings were released, although Riley said the scathing report of the department's shortcomings was not a precursor to Thomas' leaving.

However, at the panel's presentation to the city, Thomas accepted responsibility for the loss of life. "I'm so sorry that myself or somebody could not have done something different that night to bring back those nine guys," he said.

Some 47,000 documents created by the experts during their investigation have been a recent point of contention between the city and attorneys representing the families of the fallen firefighters.

The attorneys had filed a motion against the city for failing to hand over all of the documents compiled by the expert panel. Attorneys said the documents could be integral in the civil lawsuits filed against the Sofa Super Store owners.

Those documents were turned over earlier this week and the motion was dropped.

Copyright 2010 WCSC. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.