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Scrutiny Feeds Firehouse Tensions After Fatal Blaze

It's been more than six months since nine firefighters died in a warehouse fire in Charleston, S.C. The worst single loss of firefighters in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it prompted multiple investigations into the way Charleston's fire department operates. That has caused tension with the department, which is proud of its record.

The fire department in Charleston not only is one of the nation's oldest, but it also considers itself among the nation's most aggressive — a rugged force dedicated to saving lives and property in a historic city. At issue is whether it was too aggressive June 18.

That evening, crews responded to what started as a debris fire on the loading dock of the Sofa Super Store, a huge furniture showroom and warehouse. But the situation quickly worsened.

Just after crews arrived, they reported that the fire had spread inside the store. More than a dozen firefighters rushed inside, too — attacking the flames in the department's usual vigorous style.

But as the men charged into the store, they might not have anticipated the challenge they'd face. The building was loaded with flammable furniture, it had no sprinklers, and its steel truss roof allowed the fire to spread deceptively fast — faster than crews could bring in water to fight it. And as the smoke thickened and the firefighters' air supplies began to run low, several of the men apparently became disoriented and couldn't find their way out through the maze of furniture.

By the time fire chief Rusty Thomas ordered his men to flee the store, it was too late for nine of them. They succumbed to smoke inhalation and burns.

Today, more than half a year later, Thomas says his department still grieves. But as Thomas mourns the victims, he also faces questions about how his department handled the fire — whether there was an adequate plan of attack and whether firefighters should have stayed so long in a burning building, even when no other lives were at risk.

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Adam Hochberg
Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Adam Hochberg reports on a broad range of issues in the Southeast. Since he joined NPR in 1995, Hochberg has traveled the region extensively, reporting on its changing economy, demographics, culture and politics. He also currently focuses on transportation. Hochberg covered the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, followed candidates in three Presidential elections and reported on more than a dozen hurricanes.