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Ensuring ‘Never Forget’ doesn’t become ‘It happened again’

15 years after the Sofa Super Store fire, it’s critical to stay vigilant, remembering the firefighters’ sacrifice and the lessons learned from tragedy


Smoke billows from the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, S.C., Monday, June 18, 2007.

AP Photo/Alexander Fox

This year marks 15 years since fire tore through the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, South Carolina. The fire, picked up nationally and reported in real time, took the lives of nine firefighters and impacted hundreds of others in ways only those who experience traumatic death can imagine. Lives were altered for a lifetime.

The fire also brought intense attention, locally and nationally, on the department. First there was a massive outpouring of sympathy and honor for the fallen, followed by intense scrutiny and criticism of fire department operations and leadership. Multiple reports and studies of the tragedy were commissioned with a promise from the mayor to implement every recommendation.

That promise introduced a whirlwind of action that set the department on a path to which few, if any, can relate. The members were ordinary human beings thrust into an abnormal situation with no preparation or concept of what the end state would look like.

The “Routley Report,” with its 200-plus recommendations, was adopted as the “recovery roadmap.” Significant attention was focused on complying with South Carolina OSHA mandates within a defined timeline, and recommendations from NIOSH were incorporated into the plan.

All this action took place while still delivering fire and rescue service to the citizens of Charleston.

Rebuilding Charleston

A new leader for Charleston, Chief Tom Carr arrived in 2008 to foster the recovery. Among the many imperatives facing the new chief, Chief Carr reorganized the department to assist with confidence building, program management and goal achievement.

I had the distinct privilege of serving as Chief Carr’s deputy chief of operations, working purposefully to achieve his two directions: “get our house in order” and “get along with the other fire departments.”

In our daily conversations and meetings, Carr emphasized operational efficiency being a top priority for restoring the members’ confidence in themselves and the public’s confidence in the fire department. Along with Deputy Chief Frank Finley, chief of administrative services, we formed the executive leadership group to convert Chief Carr’s vision to reality. There is a long list of others who invested significant amounts of human capital to make things happen every day. At the risk of missing someone, suffice it to say most of the members expended great human capital in memory of the coworkers, friends, and family lost or damaged that day on Savannah Highway.

During all the transition, Chief Carr died from a rare illness. Chief Finley was appointed interim chief, then Chief Karen Brack came in to lead the department.

The members continued to achieve objectives and regain its operational efficiency in the wake of five leadership changes in 10 years.

Living by the ‘Never Forget’ mantra

The Charleston Fire Department that emerged from the dark day of June 18, 2007, is a fitting tribute to the tragedy and a concrete symbol of the Charleston 9 mantra, “Never Forget.”

This anniversary is significant because it marks a period when “Never Forget” must remain a mantra, not devolve to mere slogan.

For those who directly experienced the loss, the memory never goes away. For those who had a role in the recovery but didn’t suffer a loss, there are still some scars accompanied by a pride in being a part of a shared experience where accolades replaced recriminations. And for those who came after the last recommendation was checked off as fulfilled, there is an obligation to ensure that all the work that went into the department’s recovery is carried on for future generations. All too often, the impact of a tragedy wanes and is sadly forgotten, dimmed by the passage of time, relegated to historical archives, and the exodus (natural and unnatural) of those who were there. When that happens, “Never Forget” becomes “It Happened Again.” And that is the greatest insult to those who gave their lives.

Please remember the men who died that day: Captain Mike Benke, Captain William Hutchinson, Captain Louis Mulkey, Engineer Brad Baity, Engineer Mark Kelsey, Assistant Engineer Michael French, Firefighter Melvin Champaign, Firefighter James “Earl” Drayton and Firefighter Brandon Thompson. Let us also remember and honor the families, friends and coworkers who have soldiered on without them.

Fire Chief (ret.) John B. Tippett, Jr. is the director of fire service programs for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF). Tippett began his career as a volunteer and later career firefighter in Montgomery County, Maryland, and served as a firefighter, company officer, battalion chief, adjunct instructor, member and ultimately task force leader of Maryland Task Force 1, one of FEMA’s urban search and rescue teams. He retired from Montgomery County as the department’s safety battalion chief after 33 years to take a position as the first deputy chief of operations with the Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department following the Sofa Super Store fire, where he assisted in the department’s recovery from the fire. He served one year as interim fire chief. Tippett continues to be an active firefighter with the North Beach (Maryland) Volunteer Fire Department. Tippett holds a bachelor’s degree in fire science and a master’s degree in emergency services management from Columbia Southern University. He has worked extensively on firefighter safety initiatives throughout his career, including introducing Crew Resource Management to the fire service and the Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System. Tippett earned his chief fire officer designation from the Center for Public Safety Excellence in 2012 and was re-certified in 2015. He currently serves as an at-large board member of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section, and is a certified health and safety officer through the FDSOA. Tippett was the ISFSI Instructor of the Year in 2006.