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Audio details last moments in Charleston sofa store fire

By Bruce Smith
The Associated Press

Listen to radio transmissions

AP Photo/Stephen Morton
Firefighters from Charleston embrace in front of the rubble of the store after the fire.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — In the moments before a furniture store fire took their lives, some of the nine firefighters killed shouted “Mayday!” and may have recited prayers. Another said “I love you,” according to radio transmissions released Friday.

Officials also ask if everyone is out. “No, sir,” comes one reply. “We still got guys in there.”

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

Families of the fallen firefighters and members of the Charleston Fire Department listened to the radio calls Friday before they were released. The firefighters died in the blaze at the Sofa Super Store in the worst single loss of firefighters’ lives since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I don’t know exactly who said what on the tape,” Chief Rusty Thomas said. “I have listened to the tape three or four times and it’s very, very difficult to listen to, very difficult.”

The transmissions detail how a store worker was rescued, but also the firefighters’ final moments. About seven minutes before the distress call, 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 cut through a wall and pulled Tyrell out.

Soon, one firefighter calls “mayday,” and a voice says “I love you.” Then, firefighters tell their colleagues to stay off the radio system. As that order ends, a voice issues a traditional prayer ending: “In Jesus’ name, amen.”

The “I love you” may explain why, in the days after the fire, several officials said they heard stories that one of the firefighters asked those listening to tell his wife he loved her.

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

Officials still have not announced 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 the fire.