S.C. firefighter recalls harrowing trek inside Sofa Super Store
By Ron Menchaca
The Post and Courier
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Charleston firefighter Billy Kilcoyne held out his helmet and pointed to a peeling, soot-stained sticker of a green shamrock.
The shamrock — a symbol of luck — curled in the intense heat while Kilcoyne was inside the Sofa Super Store on June 18.
He said he feels "lucky" to have made it out just seconds before a fireball erupted and killed nine city firefighters.
Fire Chief Rusty Thomas issued a memo June 20 barring his firefighters from speaking to the media about the blaze. But city officials made an exception Thursday and invited reporters to hear Kilcoyne and Battalion Chief Raymond Lloyd recount their experiences from that night.
Kilcoyne, 41, has been fighting fires for 23 years, 10 of them with the city. He arrived at the furniture store shortly after the first arriving crews had already gone inside. He and other firefighters from Engine 6 on Cannon Street were gearing up to head inside when they heard a report that an employee was trapped in the store.
Lloyd, 54, heard that same report when he arrived, and he ran around to the back of the store with a team of firefighters to help with the rescue.
"I actually thought we were going for a fireman," Lloyd said.
The person trapped inside turned out to be furniture store repairman Jonathan Tyrrell III. Lloyd and others hacked a hole in the back of the store's warehouse and pulled Tyrrell out.
Inside, Kilcoyne traced a hose line toward the back of the store. He was barely five feet inside before the thick black smoke enveloped him and blotted out every trace of light.
He fumbled toward a wall and swung his pike pole at it several times, hoping to expose any fire hidden inside.
Then, he said, all hell broke loose. Firefighters, one after another, ran up to him in a panic.
Each was lost and running dangerously low on air. He tried to grab a couple of them but they rushed off in a desperate attempt to escape the choking smoke and searing heat.
Kilcoyne managed to grab one lost firefighter by the coat and steer him toward the front door. He turned around and went back inside and bumped into the captain of his engine, Mark Davis, whose air tank was almost depleted as he struggled to find his way out.
Kilcoyne clutched Davis as the two stumbled toward the sound of the fire engines outside. They were heaving in fresh air when the entire store ignited in a flash of flames.
Looking back, he said he still can't believe that he and Davis found each other in the middle of the cavernous store amid a forest of furniture. That's the kind of luck that wins the lottery, he said.
He can't help but think about the ones he saw inside - the ones that didn't make it out. "It was so quick. They were there and gone."
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