I probably can’t tell you anything about the Charleston incident that you don’t already know, except the incident from my personal perspective, and I have never shared that with anyone except my family and some close friends until today. And despite the statements bashed around in the days afterward about why things were the way they were prior to that night, there’s no amount of warning, yelling, or cajoling that could have happened before that day or after that day to really change things, because honestly, you can’t change someone who won’t listen.
As was quoted by at least one of my friends from the CFD prior to that night: “We’re the FDNY of the South.” When your fire department has a Class 1 ISO rating and homes aren’t burning into the dirt on a daily basis, the public is just fine with whatever it is you are doing. Whether your organization is using the most modern equipment and techniques, or whether they are utilizing tactics thrown away in the 70’s, there are much more important things on the public radar. Things like whether or not the garbage will get picked up, or who the next contestant is on The Bachelor, or which rehab facility Lindsay Lohan is skipping out of. The entire community of Charleston and the fire department itself, prior to that day, was fine and happy with the status quo. Just like any disaster, it isn’t until people die that questions begin to be asked.
This isn’t an indictment of the department, its culture, or anyone in particular. All I know is what I know and the things that were said before, on and after that night. A big reason why I have never said anything really about it until now is that I wasn’t asked (I was this time). But nothing I care to say would be intended to disparage the reputations or the character of the brave members of the CFD. I simply believe that the charismatic style of their leader at the time led them down a primrose path. He thought he was doing the right thing, everyone else there thought he was doing the right thing, and nothing seemed like it could go wrong, until it did. Catastrophically.
I wasn’t at the incident in the beginning and frankly, in retrospect, there were many disasters converging at that exact location that evening. It was inevitable that something bad would happen, given some of what we knew before, and of course, given what we know now. I had to shake my head in wonder when I saw that one poster on a blog page wanted to know, “Where are all the chiefs in SC?” on the issue. “Why wouldn’t they do something before this disaster?” Well, let me tell you a little bit about fire departments in the United States: Unless the public or their elected officials detect a problem, there is never going to be any change, no matter WHAT the chiefs in the neighboring communities or the state have to say about it. After the disaster, it is true, the collective anger and frustration not only from within, but from the overall fire service community was instrumental in causing a change, but really, it took the deaths of nine brave souls to make that change manifest.
All we can do now is honor the lives of those who go before us, pray for the families and help them deal with this tragedy, and hope we all learn from the events that evening. Senseless doesn’t begin to describe the loss suffered by the principals of this story, and although I chalk up a great deal of what happened to hubris and over-confidence by the Fire Chief, and by default, the organizational culture, I don’t take anything away from the extremely fine and dedicated brothers who serve the community of Charleston, SC. I can only pray that we don’t experience something like this again anywhere else on the globe. In my heart, however, I know there are departments out there who learned nothing from this, therefore, we are only a heartbeat away from repeating these mistakes again.
I was lying on the couch in my living room when I got the first call. The power was out at our house, so I was just working on my laptop, having just put the children to bed. At the time, I was the Acting Director of the South Carolina US&R Task Force and awaiting our hiring a full-time Director to take my place in Columbia. One of my Task Force Leaders rang my cell phone and asked if I had been briefed on what was going on in Charleston. He said that there were several firefighters unaccounted for in a fire at the Sofa Superstore.
I am intimately familiar with Charleston. I did the majority of my paramedic clinical time there in the 80’s and fell in love with the place. My mother-in-law grew up in Charleston and we would go up there to visit her family, especially her well-connected sister and brother-in-law, often. And when our second daughter, Caroline, was born, she developed complications resulting in a helo ride to the Medical University and a subsequent six-week stay in the neonatal ICU. In response, my wife and I literally moved to Charleston and lived at a friend’s second home at King and Broad for the entire time. We go back often and have developed many close friendships there.
I am also friends with a number of Charleston’s firefighters, although I never had the honor of meeting any of our brothers who passed that evening. But at the time, no one really seemed to know who was involved, much less who was missing, so for all I knew, it could have been any one of the people I had grown to know over the years of interacting with the department. And yes, I knew Rusty and many of the command staff who were there that evening, much as a result of my capacity with the Task Force and the ultimate oversight of their regional response team’s interaction with the State US&R Plan.
There’s really not much you can say when you get one of those calls. I’ve been called for others like it before and several hours later find that the news was completely distorted from the original message. You know, everyone ends up accounted for, or there was a mistake in transmission, or something like that. And although I had every reason to believe what I was being told was true (this TFL has always been a good friend and dependable officer), I have to admit I was a little skeptical. I told him to call me if he had any other information, and I’d call the State Fire Marshal, John Reich, who as the ESF-9 coordinator for the state, I technically reported to, and give him a heads-up.
When the power came back on a little while later, I clicked over to the Charleston news station and saw the coverage, and was immediately swayed by what was going on: an active search and rescue incident looking for multiple companies of missing firefighters. Needless to say, things began to move pretty quickly, and it was really pretty much a blur after that. Multiple phone calls between multiple state officers and the next thing was, the State Fire Marshal was asking us to represent the state at the incident and to offer whatever assistance was needed.
I can tell you this, given any State agency’s relationship with local entities, we were instantly cognizant that what we DIDN’T want was one of our incident support teams (IST) rolling in there and announcing we were there to take over, because we weren’t. Not only would that be extremely callous and insensitive to the situation, we have no statutory authority to do so, short of a gubanatorial declaration of disaster (and that wasn’t coming). So this was going to be a mission of extreme delicacy and an offer of assistance from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and as such, I felt like it would be best if I went personally, even though we had an IST sitting across the river in Mt. Pleasant.
I called up Ed Boring and Jason Walters, who at the time were both Task Force command officers and work with me at Hilton Head Island, and told them I was heading up to Charleston on direction from John Reich. Ed and Jason continue to work with me and over the years have become two of my closest friends not just because of our shared interests, but also because we served together at Katrina. Nothing like a disaster and riding around in a dark-colored Suburban to create a bonding experience.
On our arrival, we were each stupified by the absolute desolation on the scene. We got there before midnight, and at that point it was still not clear how many souls had been lost. Everyone was in shock, or so it seemed. The fire was still burning in places, but everyone seemed to be moving like their feet were in concrete. Not in a slow, poorly organized way, but in a stunned, defeated, bewildered way. It was definitely the scene of an enormous and horrendous event.
We delicately announced our need to report to the command post so we could speak to the incident commander, and kept getting pointed in a direction until we were finally pointed toward an empty pop-up tent with a single fold-up chair in the middle of the parking lot. No one was there. So we began to again poke around a little bit more, until we found Battalion Chief Robbie O’Donald, over by the ladder truck, which was still in the air. Robbie, who was a member of SC-TF1 and also a member of the Charleston command staff, had very obvious burns across his hands and arms, but was standing at the front of the building with a portable radio. I remember very softly calling to Chief O’Donald, because I honestly believed he was in total shock. The burns on both of his arms were pretty graphic, with skin literally falling off of his arms, but here he was, still at his post.
After a brief discussion about who was in charge and where he was at, I asked Robbie if he realized his arms were burned. He just kind of nodded and made a quiet, brief comment about trying to get someone out. I asked him if he wanted to get his burns checked out, he just said he’d be okay. Ignoring my suggestion, he led us over to a nearby gas station where the police had set up a command post of sorts, but no one was there either, so we went back over to the front of the store and stood around for a little. Finally, I said to Robbie, “Hey, John Reich sent us up here to see if there’s anything we can do for you.” Without answering me, he began to detail out for us where all the firefighters were lost at, including two on the other side of the wall from where we were standing.
I remember there was a back hoe sitting in front of the store. “You aren’t going to dig them out with that, are you?” I asked. Given the state everyone was in, I didn’t quite know what to take for granted. “Man, I can bring you the entire task force down here, or just trucks and equipment if you guys want to do this yourselves, but you tell us what YOU want, we’ll do whatever it is YOU want.” Trying to push him a little, I gave him my official business card, to indicate the official nature of my being there, and told him to take it to Rusty, and to let him know that whatever he needed, we’d get it there, just name it. So Robbie took the card and went into the building and out of our sight, which was where Chief Thomas was.
After a while, Chief O’Donald came back out and told me, “Chief Rusty says we’re fine.” Something in his face told me differently, and I’ve had enough experience to also know that things weren’t fine. But I wasn’t going to argue.
“Robbie, we’ll be right over there,” I pointed to the street, “if you guys change your mind.” He was staring back into the building again and I put my hand on his arm to let him know we were serious. “I don’t have the authorization to make a decision for Hilton Head, but given what’s going on here, if you need people up here to cover you guys, I know we can get a bunch of guys up here to cover you at least on a volunteer basis.” He shook his head again and said, “Chief Rusty said we’ve got it.”
So we just wandered back to the road and got out of the way. I called John Reich and gave him my report and said that we needed to send another representative later on when some of the shock wore off. Then Ed and Jason and I stood by the road and watched as they carried the first five or six out, I don’t even really remember because at that point, I felt like this was something they needed to do themselves, and I wasn’t going to push the matter. If they were my people, I’d want to be the one who carried them out, so I understood. I also felt like our presence there, at that point, was more of a bystander than being of assistance, so we made our offers again, and with them saying once again they had everything under control, we left. The ride home was pretty quiet.
I look back on that night with a certain amount of disbelief. Did a department who fought as many fires as Charleston did really think they were going to make a knock on a commercial building fire with a single 2 1/2 inch supply line from a distant hydrant? Did they really think an attack on a heavily-loaded big box with booster lines was a sufficient attack strategy? Did they completely forget about the thermal imager sitting on their apparatus? Did their hubris really lead them to reject the notion of calling for outside resources early into the incident? Did the idea that “we fight these fires every day” with no semblance of modern command and control overwhelm the logical need for a coordinated rescue supported by protective lines? Rather than trying to attack a fast-mover without opening up the overheads, might we have not approached this with a more defensive attack once it was realized that a victim was trapped in the rear of the building?
We can “what if” this incident to death, but it doesn’t reverse the past. I personally know many of the key players in this saga and I can reassure you, none of them went to work that morning thinking, “Hey, I think I’ll kill off a few firefighters today”. But that’s what happened and no matter how sure you are of yourself, when you lose nine firefighters and someone asks you, “Given what you know now, would you fight this fire differently?” and you say, “No”, you have got a serious problem.
Resources will always be a problem in the fire service. We never have what we really need to do our jobs and we are always going to be understaffed. We will always be questioned by the public as to why it takes so many of us to fight a fire and why does it all cost so damn much. Then when all hell breaks loose, if we don’t make things happen, the public will scream that we didn’t do our job. It’s the never-ending dichotomy of public service. But to look at the lessons learned that evening and ignore them, well, it’s tantamount to killing your people.
It’s this simple: if you can’t fight the fire without killing your people, then why bother? If a rescue were being made, it’s one thing, but the men who lost their lives weren’t in any position to mount a defense for the rescue teams; they were in attack positions and eventually retreat positions with nowhere to go. They were actively trying to seek out a hidden fire while the whole time they were playing a game stacked against them. There WAS no “Plan B”. I’m not sure there was a “Plan A”. If you drive by there today, it’s a big vacant lot. These guys gave up their lives for their community, they gave what is identified in the Bible as being the greatest gift one can give to their fellow man: their lives. But just like the 343 men who died in the World Trade Center, the public has a short memory of these people and their mission. And when we ask for more funds, more manpower, or more equipment, more training, more support, or more apparatus, unless the stain of blood is still on the hands of the civilians from the latest disaster du jour, they have moved on to the next media extravaganza of the week.
Me, I have an obligation to my family to come home in the morning. I have an obligation to the families of my personnel to make sure they leave in the morning as well. If I don’t keep sharp, if I don’t fully comprehend the situation I am sending companies in to engage, and if I don’t have the means to put the tools in their hands they need, then I am failing them. No amount of pride, a patch, a label, or honors will do you any good when you are carrying out your dead and for what? If we can’t be there for each other, what have we really got?
Where were you that night? You may not have been there, but the lessons are all available for us to read and to learn from. If we fail to address the deficiencies, or short of that, at least identify methods of modifying our approach, or even less, realizing we simply don’t have the appropriate resources and stating: “we’re going to let it burn”, then we are ignoring the legacy of these fine men, these Charleston Nine, who have gone on before us. As leaders, we have a responsibility to learn and not make the same mistakes again. Honor these men by perfecting our craft and striving for positive change in the fire service. I never knew them, but I’ll bet that’s what they’d have wanted. Let’s keep them forever in our memory and insure they are never forgotten.