Live 5 Investigates: Sofa Super Store building failures

Live 5 Investigates: Sofa Super Store building failures
Updated: Jun. 20, 2017 at 11:15 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Losing nine firefighters in the Sofa Super Store fire was a terrible tragedy.

Afterwards, the leadership of the Charleston Fire Department was under intense scrutiny, and the owners of the store were facing accusations of serious violations and lawsuits.

Joe Riley was the mayor of Charleston at the time of the fire, and still remembers getting the call.

"I heard the call amongst them and on their radios," Riley said."The events cascaded."

Within forty minutes, the store was engulfed in flames, nine firefighters were gone, and our community was changed forever.

"Then was the sad, equally heartbreaking experience of being with family members when they found out what happened," Riley said.

Finding out exactly what happened from an investigative standpoint took months. Federal agencies were involved.

Riley appointed a post-fire review team to figure out what lessons could be learned.

For family members like Ann Mulkey, Capt. Louis Mulkey's mother, all those investigations were hard to read.

"It crushed us because they shouldn't have died," Mulkey said.

Fire investigators believe a "discarded cigarette" is the most likely cause of the fire that day.

A cigarette tossed on the loading dock out back where highly flammable and combustible liquids were being improperly stored, alongside discarded furniture.

"It moved from the outside to the inside of the building very rapidly," said Charleston attorney Kevin Dean."The decking on the back of SSS was wood."

Dean represented five of the nine families in the lawsuits they filed later against the sofa store's owners and furniture companies.

"The firefighters were serving their community, protecting property, and protecting life," Dean said."So none of them did anything wrong. They just didn't know what they were getting into."

"I was angry," said retired CFD captain Richard Koger."When my friend called to inform me there had been a fire, I said, 'It didn't have to happen.'"

Koger retired from the Charleston Fire Department months before the big fire.

It happened on his shift.

He had worked with all of the Charleston Nine throughout his 24 years with the department.

"When she said Sofa Super Store I just froze," Koger said."Because I pre-planned this building in 99. 98 or 99. With Mike Benke."

That was at least eight years before the big fire.

A 1998 inspection listed code violations such as exits blocked and exit signs needing repair.

"We met, we went through this building," Koger said."That was before the warehouse part was put up. Mike made the statement then- 'Someone's gonna die if we ever have a fire in this building.'"

Tragically, Benke was one of the nine who died. It haunts Koger to this day.

"It was layer upon layer of sofas..stacked to the ceiling, I mean 30 feet high," Koger said.

The Routley report determined there were later "illegal" modifications made to the building.

"It just caused mass confusion when those nine guys went in," Dean said.

The enclosed loading dock and workshops were added at the back of the store.

They were built without permits, blocked at least one exit door, and didn't have sprinklers that would have been required.

In a later simulation from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, investigators showed how sprinklers could have contained the fire on the loading dock within 90 seconds.

"The owner of SSS was not spending money to update the building...servicing these fire doors that should have slammed shut to block off the spread of the fire," Dean said.

The exit doors in the east showroom and west showroom were illegally padlocked shut.

The store was cited with OSHA violations for that later.

Melvin Champaign, Mikey French and Mike Benke were in the west showroom not far from the exit door that was padlocked shut.

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