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Answers Sought in Deadly South Carolina Fire


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.



And I'm Andrea Seabrook.

In South Carolina, flags are flying at half-staff to honor nine firefighters from Charleston who died last night. They were trying to extinguish a furniture store fire when the roof of the building collapsed. It's the most firefighters to die in a single incident in the U.S. since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. At a news conference this afternoon, long-time Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the reality of this tragedy has begun to affect everyone.

Mayor JOSEPH RILEY (Charleston, South Carolina): These people will never be forgotten. This time, yesterday, they were firefighters. This time, today, they are heroic historic figures in our city, and they will never be forgotten.

SEABROOK: NPR's Adam Hochberg is in Charleston and joins us now. Adam, you were at the sight of the fire earlier today. Tell us what you saw.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Well, at this point, there's just a large pile of rubble. This building was an old supermarket. It was built as a Piggly Wiggly store, but you really can't see much of the structure left at this point, just a lot of twisted metal, broken glass. There's a small portion of the front facade still standing, but otherwise, this building was a total loss.


SEABROOK: It was a sofa superstore, I understand it, and do we know anything about how this fire started?

HOCHBERG: Not at this point. The mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, is saying that there's no reason to think that it was arson. But beyond that, we don't know what might have caused it. It was an older building and it did not have a sprinkler system. If you built a building like that now in Charleston, it would have to have sprinklers, but that was not the case when this building was built.

So the fire officials here are saying that the lack of sprinklers allowed this fire to spread very quickly. And also they're talking about the kinds of things that were in this store - sofas, wooden furniture, things that burn and can burn quickly. So that, they say, played a role both in the size of the fire and also how ferocious the fire was.

SEABROOK: What are you hearing from officials about why these nine firefighters were inside the warehouse as opposed to dousing the flames from outside?

HOCHBERG: At this point, we're not hearing many specifics at all about why they were inside or what they were doing or how they went about fighting this fire. That's something that will come in later days with the investigation. And in fact, federal investigators have been called in, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will be the lead agency on the investigation.

There has been some speculation here that they may have been looking for somebody inside. We've heard a couple of reports. The mayor said, at one point during the evening, there was a call that there was a firefighter who was unaccounted for, but he wasn't able to say whether the other firefighters who were in the store might have been looking for that first firefighter.

There also has been a report of a 911 call that came in at some point in the evening talking about an employee or a customer of the store who might have been inside, and perhaps that's what the firefighters were doing - was looking for that person. But, at this point, it's still a bit speculative. We don't know exactly what was happening and why they were there.

SEABROOK: Adam, tell us about these nine firefighters who died. What have you learned?

HOCHBERG: Well, we know that they had more than 100 years of combined service to the Charleston Fire Department. The most veteran among them had more than 30 years of service. The youngest member of the force who was killed overnight had just a year and a half of service. Many of them, we can tell you, left wives and families behind, and Charleston Fire Chief Rusty Thomas paid tribute to those survivors this afternoon when he was speaking with the news media. Let's listen to that.

Mr. RUSTY THOMAS (Chief, Charleston City Fire Department): To the families, you gave them to us and we protected them as much as we could. They did exactly what they were trained to do. I can't say enough for these nine guys. These nine guys were my friends. I lost nine of my best friends.

SEABROOK: NPR's Adam Hochberg in Charleston. Thank you very much.

HOCHBERG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.