The Wrath of the “Fire Gods” Took Nine Lives in South Carolina

CORRECTION Charleston Fire

The Charleston 9 Will NEVER Be Forgotten

It happened on June 18, 2007, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Victims of the Sofa Super Store Warehouse

Rodney Bradford Baity, age 37 was the first firefighter to be located-  Described as a “gentle giant, a man of few words, with a prankish nature at work and a dedicated  husband father who always got down on the floor to play his kids;

James a Drayton, age 56, with 32 years experienced, he was very dedicated to helping others in any way possible.He was a former Marine with a myriad of interests including – cooking‚ crabbing‚ vacationing on cruise ships‚ fixing things‚ working on cars‚ listening to James Brown‚ dancing‚ and being around children, and being a stagehand in local theater.

Melvin Champaign, 46,  struggled in childhood and was raised by his Grandmama “for his safety”. Melvin  was beloved by many and talented beyond compare – always the role model and paying it forward for others. A black belt in karate, working with youth, a carpenter, musician and songwriter, a member of the Army, who also had a passion for the ministry and earned his  Associate’s degree in theology. He married, had three children and also worked as an ironworker.  He returned to Charleston from Tacoma Washington in 2003 and  fulfilled another life long dream of becoming a firefighter until the time of his death in 2007.

Michael French, age 27, aka “Frenchie”  or “Mikey”, began his career as a volunteer firefighter at age 14,. He worked for several departments and ultimately achieved assistant Engineer in one year versus the 2 to 3 years for others to achieve. He was born on Valentine’s Day and a sweetheart from the beginning. He was laid back‚ never in a hurry‚ rarely got excited‚ but always busy. He ever stopped according to his mother. Frenchies was a devoted husband and father to a girl and boy. Frenchies was also an avid hunter and fisherman who never lost his primary passion for firefighting.  

Theodore “Mike” Benke, age 49, had nearly a 29 year firefighting career. He was the consummate soccer and all other activity” Dad  to  3 children and 3 grandchildren – always doing for others! For example He was always driving kids to soccer and baseball practices/games‚ school‚ field trips‚ working in the yard‚ homework‚ housework‚ (especially laundry‚) cleaning the pool‚ or whatever needed to be done. He ALWAYS found time to have fun with his family. He especially loved racing and telling people how proud he was of his family. He was described by his wife as a gentle soul who disliked confrontation , but filled his life with love and laughter.

William Hutchinson III, age 48, rose through the ranks of firefighting beginning at age 18 and progressed from firefighter to engineer to Captain and had the reputation as a trusted and skilled mentor. He was also a barber, bringing those tools of the trade to the firehouse for haircut. He was married with two daughters. Billy enjoyed vacationing and competing in golf tournaments in Myrtle Beach, where he won trophies for his golf skills. Billy’s wife, Phyllis remembers pinning his badge‚ collar brass‚ and name tag on every duty day for 18 years.

Mark Kelsey lost his life at age 40, after a 26 year career in firefighting in the Ashley River and then the Charleston City SC Fire Department following nine years in the US Navy. His ranks included Captain, Certified Fire Investigator and Engineer prior to his death. His hobbies included motorcycle riding, on a custom chopper with “the Wolf Pack.”
Lous “LuLu” Mulkey, age 34, achieved Captain status as well as numerous awards in the line of duty, during his 11.5 year tenure with the Charleston City Fire Department  including saving the life of a fellow firefighter. He also was very involved in coaching “his boys” in basketball and football. LuLu was married to his wife  Lauren with a wide array of friends and players who loved him dearly.  

Brandon K. Thompson was the youngest of three brothers, originally from Mobile Alabama with all boys following the volunteer firefighter track. He embraced the role of firefighter , excelled in many aspects. He held awards of firefighter of the year at Pine Ridge and was the Assistant Chief and station Captain. He also wrote grants to obtain needed safety equipment.He joined the Summerville Fire Department in 1999 and joined the City of Charleston Fire Department in 2003, foregoing a potential position as engineer to “be on the nozzle and fight fires.”    

Sadly, Brandon was not scheduled to work the day of the fire, as he had swapped shifts and parshished with his colleagues from Ladder Company #5.   Brandon’s body was the last firefighter to be removed from what remained of the furniture warehouse. He  was the youngest of the Charleston 9.

The Fire Event

The fire began at 6:15 p.m. at the Sofa Super Store warehouse 1807 Savannah Highway. It was comprised of a retail store  with 42,000 square feet and a 17,000 square foot warehouse at the back of the single story building. Firefighters arrived in three minutes addressing the initial fire in the loading dock area and with adequate visibility and occasional wisps of smoke until a rear door was opened where the fire raged.


A description from the Center for Disease Control Report-

The right showroom addition to the loading dock was opened. Within minutes, the fire rapidly spread into and above the main showroom, the right showroom addition, and the warehouse. The burning furniture quickly generated a huge amount of toxic and highly flammable gases along with soot and products of incomplete combustion that added to the fuel load. The fire overwhelmed the interior attack and the interior crews became disoriented when thick black smoke filled the showrooms from ceiling to floor. The interior fire fighters realized they were in trouble and began to radio for assistance as the heat intensified. One firefighter activated the emergency button on his radio. The front showroom windows were knocked out and firefighters, including a crew from a mutual-aid department, were sent inside to search for the missing firefighters. Soon after, the flammable mixture of combustion by-products ignited, and fire raced through the main showroom. Interior fire fighters were caught in the rapid fire progression and nine firefighters from the first-responding fire department died. At least nine other firefighters, including two mutual-aid fire fighters, barely escaped serious injury.”

Contributing Factors for  the Death and Destruction-

  • Firefighters becoming disoriented;
  • Lack of  a sprinkler system;
  • South Carolina didn’t follow Federal regulations for two firefighters to stay outside a burning structure for every two firefighters that enter on “rapid intervention missions.” Rather, South Carolina previously followed a “two firefighters in, one firefighter out rule.”(Reference New York Times article below)

Many of the 43 NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety) incident report  recommendations included this sampling-

Several examples of lack of Standard Operating Procedures:

  • lack of continuous risk assessment by those in charge outside, communicating     with those inside;
  • adequate protection of fire equipment;
  • improved training of safety techniques, improved radio equipment and communications with other entities;
  • provide compliant  fire work station garments;
  • use thermal imaging cameras to assess  the fire situations;
  • require the use of sprinkler systems and automatic ventilation systems in commercial structures, especially ones having high fuel loads.

The Controversy of Flame Retardant Chemicals in Furniture and Health Risks-  

In the Charleston Fire,The burning furniture quickly generated a huge amount of toxic and highly flammable gases along with soot and products of incomplete combustion that added to the fuel load.

A Brief History of Toxic, Flammable Furniture- (According to the National Resources Defense Council-(a New York City-based, non-profit international environmental advocacy group)-

Since 1975, furniture foam has been laden with flame retardant chemicals to meet the standards of California’s Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117). But recently, (2014) studies by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other groups have found that ame retardant chemicals in furniture are ineffective at preventing, limiting, or slowing down res.2 Further, the chemicals don’t stay in the furniture—they migrate out and collect in indoor dust. When people touch, inhale, or accidentally eat contaminated dust, ame retardants enter their bodies. Young children are especially vulnerable to flame retardant exposures.Flame retardant chemicals are associated with a variety of health risks, including cancer, hormone disruption, and diminished cognitive capacity.

Eleven responses were obtained  from 16 major furniture manufacturers , with 9 completing their survey.

On June 18, 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown directed the state to revise TB117. The revised standard, TB117-2013, improves re safety by addressing how fires actually start, eliminating the need for ame retardant chemicals. Effective January 1, 2014, companies can voluntarily comply with TB117-2013. The standard became mandatory on January 1, 2015.”

Even in 2018, I would estimate that this is still very much a work in progress. However, the two larger questions regarding loss of life for the Charleston families would be; How much of the toxic chemical load contributed to the loss of life in the Charleston fire?And, how do you weigh the need for fire retardant against the potentially harmful health risks today?

I would say ask a firefighter.  They care about saving lives. A balance between the two concerns must be achieved!




Eleven Years Later-

There is no doubt that safety standards, procedures, equipment, staffing,  and communication has vastly improved since the Charleston Nine Fire. Although there was much devastation and loss of life, invaluable lessons were learned in the midst of fire, black soot,  toxic chemicals, tears and everlasting grief.

One positive outcome was the formation of the FAST team – The Firefighter’s Assistance and Support Team was an outgrowth of this tragic Charleston event designed to help firefighters on a peer to peer basis for their grief in the performance of their jobs,  in assisting others, dealing with their  loss and making professional referrals and resources available to these brave first responders. This program has grown to include other departments.

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