CHARLESTON, S.C. – More than a dozen firefighters who rushed into the burning furniture superstore knew – or thought they knew – two things: Employees were trapped inside, and the blaze was small enough to control.
But within moments, flames swept across the warehouse, blowing out windows and eventually collapsing the roof in a twisted mass of brown steel. Nine men were killed in the nation’s biggest loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I lost nine of my best friends,” said Fire Chief Rusty Thomas, choking back tears Tuesday. “To the families, you gave them to us, and we protected them as best as we could.”
The cause of the fire Monday night at the Sofa Super Store and exactly how the men were killed were under investigation, but officials said arson was not suspected.
One fire captain said the men might have fallen victim to a flashover, in which superhot gases heat a building and its contents so intensely that they literally burst into flames.
Buildings that contain a lot of furniture are especially vulnerable, because of the wood lacquer, polyurethane foam and other combustible materials that can reach flashover at a relatively low temperature – sometimes within minutes of a fire’s onset.
Other officials, however, said the roof collapse might have killed the firefighters.
The building had no fire sprinklers and was not required to have them. The fire chief said sprinklers would not have put out the fire but would have at least slowed it.
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