Radio transmissions from Charleston fire released

A firefighter takes a moment after helping to put out the fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters in Charleston on June 19.
A firefighter takes a moment after helping to put out the fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters in Charleston on June 19.

CHARLESTON -- While the Sofa Super Store fire was burning in the back warehouse, Charleston fire officials kept sending firefighters with hoses through the front door to battle the blaze.

After 10 minutes inside, firefighters became lost in the burning furniture showroom, according to recordings of radio transmissions from the June 18 blaze that killed nine firefighters and raised numerous questions about how it started, how it was fought and what mistakes must never be repeated.

"Need some help out, lost connection with the hose," one firefighter yells into his radio.

Less than two minutes later, a firefighter screams "Mayday!"

Then, for the next 30 seconds, chaos. Explosions of sound, sirens and words.

"I love you," from a man who sounds out of breath.

"Everybody stay off the radio!" from a chief with panic in his voice.

"In Jesus' name, amen," from a man who sounds at peace.

After that, Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas sounds scared. He frantically calls his assistant chiefs, trying to find out who called "Mayday."

Then, slowly, a tragedy takes shape.

"Ladder Five's engineer's walkie's off," says a dispatcher. "Emergency button has been activated."

That assistant engineer, Michael French, would perish in the blaze.

Chief Thomas doesn't want to believe it.

"Car 1 to anybody in Engine 15!" he shouts.

No one responds.

"Car 1 to the captain at 15, or anybody at 15!"

Again, no response. The captain at Engine 15, Louis Mulkey, later would be found dead.

By the time the smoke cleared, rescue workers would find nine firefighters among the rubble of what once was the Sofa Super Store on U.S. 17 in Charleston. It was the worst loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Signs of confusion

In all, the city released more than 900 radio transmissions from the time the fire was reported the evening of June 18 to about noon the next day.

While officials had released 911 tapes from the fire, the internal department transmissions were not released earlier because they were part of an investigation into the fire's cause. The transmissions were released Friday in response to freedom of information requests from several news agencies, including The State newspaper.

No transcripts were released along with the recordings, and it's not always clear who is speaking.

"I don't know exactly who said what on the tape," Thomas said. "I have listened to the tape three or four times, and it's very, very difficult to listen to -- very difficult."

Families of the fallen firefighters and members of the Charleston Fire Department listened to the radio calls Friday before they were released.

"It would have been insensitive and caused more distress to the families" if they had been released to news outlets first, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley Jr. said.

Throughout some 12 hours of dispatches, it becomes apparent firefighters had several problems:

• Low water pressure. Firefighters repeatedly asked for more water pressure; some said they had zero pressure. At 8:06 p.m. -- more than an hour after the fire started -- a dispatcher calls the Charleston Public Works department a second time, requesting more water pressure.

• Chief Thomas and other chiefs clearly had trouble keeping track of where and how many firefighters were inside.

• It appears there was some delay in shutting off power to the store, as utility officials were slow to act and at least one power truck was turned away at the scene by a police officer.

All of those issues are being studied by the city's Post Incident Assessment and Enhancement Review Team, which was formed last week. J. Gordon Routley, a retired fire chief from Shreveport, La., is leading the review.

Mayor Riley also has said the city plans to buy the Sofa Super Store property and turn it into a memorial.

'Hang in there'

Before the firefighters' distress calls, the transmissions detail how a store worker was rescued. The trapped worker is heard talking with a dispatcher on the phone.

"OK, We'll get you there, buddy. We're coming in there for you right now, OK?" the dispatcher said.

"Please don't be long," said the worker, later identified as Jonathan Tyrell. "I've got a wife and kids."

"Just hang in there. Stay low for me. You get low on the ground," said the dispatcher. Tyrell responds that he's pounding on the wall with a hammer.

"Just keep beatin'. Keep beatin'. But try to stay as low and as calm as you can be. They'll bust in and get in there for you. They are going to get you out of there," the dispatcher said.

Firefighters eventually cut through a wall and pulled Tyrell out.

Officials still have not made public a cause for the blaze, although authorities have said the fire began in a loading dock area. Employees have said workers took cigarette breaks in that area.

Local and state police agencies, as well as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are investigating.