S.C. Safety Officials Fine Fire Dept., Store in Fire that Killed 9

September 24, 2007

South Carolina safety regulators fined the Charleston Fire Department and a furniture store last week for violating safety standards in a blaze that killed nine firefighters.

The report and citations by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not say the violations directly led to the June 18 deaths of nine firefighters. It was the nation’s single worst loss of firefighters since the 2001 terror attacks at the World Trade Center.

The combined fines totaled $42,100.

The report is one of handful of investigations into the deadly blaze. The official cause of the fire has not been released. However, officials have said it started in a loading dock area where employees said they smoked cigarettes.

The state’s workplace safety report cited the fire department for four violations, including one “willful” violation for having an inadequate command structure that could ensure firefighter safety in an emergency. In all, the department was hit with four violations totaling $9,325 in fines.

Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said late Thursday that the city will fight the citations and has asked for a hearing to defend itself. He said that following the fire the city changed some of the policies the incurred the fines, but believes the citations were unfair and wrongly issued.

“It’s very important that we seek the truth and we keep the record straight,” the mayor said.

Last month, a city-appointed panel reviewing the Charleston Fire Department made 20 recommendations, including improving leadership command at fires as well as hiring other top firefighting officials.

Among the other fines levied against the department Thursday were two for firefighters on the scene not wearing full protective gear: air tanks and body protection. Riley said the city wants to specifically know more about the air tank violation and said firefighters who were inside the store wore the breathing apparatus.

The Sofa Super Store was cited for a “willful” violation for having padlocked doors. It was also cited for fire doors that did not work and not having an emergency action plan in place for its employees.

One store worker was trapped during the blaze but was pulled to safety by firefighters.

On Thursday, store owner Herb Goldstein defended having the doors locked.

“Our managers locked the doors at closing time to keep criminals and transients out of the building, and only when there were no customers present,” Goldstein said in a statement.

The store was fined $32,775 for three violations.

One of the serious violations involving the fire department involved it not having procedures in place for fighting a fire involving a metal truss roof, according to the report.

Steel trusses are prone to failure in fires because the steel weakens when heated. In the Charleston fire, witnesses reported the roof collapsing. The coroner said the firefighters died of burns and smoke inhalation.

The showroom, which was about half of the 60,000 square-foot store, had a steel truss roof. A fire official who went into the building has said the blaze spread from the loading dock to the storeroom front in the ceiling without his realizing it. The fine for the violation was $900.

The mayor said state officials had no policy of their own for fighting those types of fire before the furniture store blaze, so that his department could not be accused of violating one. “You can’t make up policies after the fact,” Riley said.

The city has made several changes at the department in the wake of the fire, including more training for firefighters, changing the fabric of their uniforms and hiring additional high-level officers.

A day before the fines were issued, the head of South Carolina’s firefighter union called for the Charleston fire chief’s resignation.

Michael Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Association, said firefighters had lost faith in Chief Rusty Thomas.

On Thursday evening, Riley said the group is not representative of all firefighters and he defended the chief.

“I think it’s outrageous and wrong,” Riley said. “Chief Thomas deserves my support, which he has, and he deserves the supports of the citizens of our community, which he has.”

Topics South Carolina

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