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Deadly South Carolina Furniture Store Blaze Initially Mistaken For Trash Fire

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) _ The flames from a furniture store blaze that killed nine firefighters initially appeared to be from a trash fire outside the building, said the assistant fire chief who decided the structure was safe to enter.

Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin said Wednesday he saw smoke wafting between ceiling tiles inside the store, but thought it had seeped in through cracks and air vents from the trash fire on a loading ramp.

Garvin said he now believes the fire had in fact spread inside to the building's attic before firefighters arrived Monday night.

``I'm thinking that fire was in that ceiling above us,'' Garvin told The Associated Press late Wednesday. ``But when I was in there, I did not know it and they did not know it. If I could back up time . . . all nine guys would be alive.''

The city and the South Carolina's Labor, Licensing and Regulation Department say they plan to investigate whether Charleston fire crews violated safety procedures and whether they had proper training and equipment to respond to the Sofa Super Store blaze, the nation's deadliest firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11.

``Part of the purpose is to look, for us or any fire department in the country, if there are lessons learned in terms of how well things were done or any aspect of it,'' Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said Wednesday, adding that he's confident the department followed proper procedure.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but arson is not suspected.

Fire officials have defended their actions.

``They didn't make a mistake when they first went in there,'' said Assistant Fire Chief Ronnie Classen. ``They did exactly what they were supposed to do, there's no question.''

Garvin, a 34-year veteran of the Charleston Fire Department, was the officer in charge at the furniture store fire. He said a fire captain who arrived first told him the fire was coming from burning trash on the ramp.

While one crew tried to extinguish the fire from the side of the building, Garvin said, he went inside to see if firefighters could battle the flames from another angle by bringing hoses through the front of the store to the back door exiting to the ramp.

``When I walked in that building it was crystal clear,'' Garvin said. ``There was no smoke in that building whatsoever.''

Then he noticed wisps of smoke coming from the ceiling tiles. He said he assumed it was leaking inside through cracks and air ducts.

Garvin said he made three trips in and out of the furniture store, and each time the smoke seemed thicker _ but still, nothing inside seemed to be burning. As many as 16 firefighters entered to train hoses at the fire on the loading dock.

Then firefighters got word that a store employee had called 911, saying he was trapped in a repair shop in the rear of the building. Garvin and four other firefighters went to the back, chopped through a locked gate with an ax and heard the man banging on the wall with a hammer.

``The smoke was getting thicker and thicker,'' said Jonathan Tyrrell, 28. ``I basically laid on the floor hitting cabinets and walls and anything I could reach.''

A firefighter chopped through the building's metal siding, while others pulled Tyrrell out through the hole.

``If it wasn't for God and it wasn't for the firefighters, coming to get me though the wall, I wouldn't have made it,'' Tyrrell said.

Garvin said that when he returned to the fire trucks, he was told several men hadn't come out of the store. The fire was burning inside, having intensified within minutes, and grew hot enough to blow out the store's windows.

Firefighters sounded an air horn on one of the trucks three times _ a signal to warn anyone inside the building to get out. Nobody emerged. No one answered radio calls. Firefighters who tried to rescue those inside were forced back by raging flames, Garvin said.

A few minutes later, the roof collapsed in a pile of twisted metal.

Coroner Rae Wooten said the nine victims died from smoke inhalation and extensive burns.

``I think they got lost in the smoke and all that furniture. You couldn't see,'' Garvin said.

He said the men's bodies were also found separated from their fire hoses _ their lifelines to getting safely outside.

``Those guys died as heroes doing what their passion was,'' Garvin said. ``Their motto was we fight what people fear.''
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