Firefighter turns to comedy after Sofa Super Store fire

He turned to comedy for a much-needed distraction after suffering from PTSD, depression and survivor's guilt


The Island Packet

CHARLESTON, S.C. — All through the night of June 18, 2007, firefighter and Bluffton native Travis Howze searched through twisted roof beams, collapsed steel and charred remains of the Sofa Super Store on U.S. 17 in Charleston, looking for missing firemen.

Howze had arrived around 7:30 p.m. He had been off-duty, attending a memorial golf tournament nearby, but had hurried over when he got word of the fire.

He didn't have his gear, so he sent his girlfriend to the fire station to get it. By that time, however, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas had already called for everyone to abandon the engulfed building. It collapsed minutes later. The nine men still inside didn't come out.

In February 2015, Howze is in Mescalero, N.M., preparing for a show. Now a touring standup comedian, he gets on stage night after night, making people laugh.

In his sets, Howze, 36, is engaging and vibrant, grinning impishly as he hurls jokes at the audience and at himself. June 18, 2007 seems far away, except for the tattoo on his right arm of the American flag with nine stars, representing the men who died that night.

From the post-traumatic stress, major depression and survivor's guilt that followed came a passion for comedy, which Howze turned from a much-needed distraction into a successful career.

Class clown
Howze has always been funny. He has always made sure everyone around him was laughing and having a good time, said his childhood friend Derek Church.

He and Howze both attended H.E. McCracken Middle School in Bluffton. Next door was a fire station, where, as teenagers, they became junior firefighters, handling non-hazardous tasks like laying out the hoses and cleaning equipment.

At Hilton Head High School, Howze was voted class clown his senior year. The superlative was a disappointment to his no-nonsense father, so Howze skipped picture day, and the award went to the runner-up.

To prove to his father he could be serious, Howze joined the Marines after graduation, later remembering his first thought at bootcamp to be, "Oops!"

After four years in the Marines, Howze returned to Bluffton and became a firefighter. He knew when it was time to work and when it was time to goof off, his friends said, and had a reputation for pulling pranks on his co-workers (one of them being Church). He worked in Bluffton for two years before moving to Charleston.

There, Howze did a stint as a policeman. Naturally, he was the fun-loving type who joked with drivers. The type, he said, that people called the cops on because they thought they were being pulled over by an impostor.

It wasn't to be, and Howze soon returned to firefighting, taking up a post at Engine 6 in Charleston in 2005. He continued to joke with his co-workers. He began dabbling in comedy open mic nights on the side.

Tragedy's toll
There was absolutely nothing funny about June 18, 2007. Howze volunteered for the recovery team that pulled the nine bodies from the smoking husk of the sofa store. Some were trapped and pinned. Some were lying in the open. All had to be bagged one by one. Howze had known them well.

"The whole time was very surreal. I had a job to do, and I was doing my job. I was very focused on the task at hand. The emotion didn't sink in for a couple of days," he said.

When it did sink in, it stuck, pulling Howze into a black hole of depression and PTSD.

"I've been on hundreds of scenes where you see maimed people, dead people; you learn how to deal with those things. I never thought back on the job about those people we couldn't save," Howze said, "but for some reason after this fire with my friends, everything came back to me."

Everyone coped with the effects of the fire in different ways, said Scott Jainchill, a former Charleston firefighter who worked with Howze at the time. "Some guys had it easier, some had it worse."

Some left firefighting altogether.

Some turned to drugs or alcohol, which Howze did initially. He stayed at work even though he knew he was not coping well mentally and emotionally. Pictures of The Nine were everywhere, a constant reminder of his painful experience.

"You couldn't get away from it. Anytime I saw the pictures, I saw their burnt, mangled bodies. It was constant flashbacks," he said. "That took a toll on me."

Comedy as therapy
One day Howze's built-up anger and aggression came to a head in a fight with a co-worker. He was forced to bow out of the department.

Unsure of what else to do, Howze turned his attention to comedy. He began hitting the road to perform at small clubs and venues, eventually working up to a nationally touring, headlining act.

He was voted Stand Up Comedy's Mouth of the South and Charleston's Funniest Person in 2009.

He recently recorded a comedy album, "Reporting for Duty," to be released within a few months. In August, he'll travel overseas to perform for the troops on several U.S. military installations.

"He has a captivating energy," said Eric Yoder, a club booking agent with Funny Business Agency. "And he writes good jokes. That combination does well for him."

Yoder's agency has several comedians who are ex-cops and ex-military. "There's a common theme there for comedians that comedy has become therapy for them," he said.

In Howze's website bio, he briefly mentions the Super Store fire and his loss. Even in this convivial profession earmarked for lighthearted entertainment, Howze is quick to point out the past trauma that shaped him. He says he wants to continue serving others by making them laugh.

His tagline says it all: Funny Under Fire.

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