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Firehouse mourns its fallen

At a station that lost 5 comrades in the blaze, firefighters report for duty, stoic but in shock.

June 21, 2007|Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writers

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The morning shift change came and went with little fanfare Wednesday at the fire station on Ashley Hall Plantation Road.

Engineer Earl Dunlap drove Engine No. 19 out on the driveway and conducted his ritual equipment check. Capt. Gary Taylor signed off of his 24-hour stint with a nod to Capt. Patrick Sandford, who was just coming on.

"All right, Cappy, take care," Taylor said, walking to his car.

"All right, Cappy."

Five of nine Charleston firefighters killed in a warehouse blaze Monday had worked out of this station on the west side of town. On Wednesday, those still here were trying to be stoic, but their shock was obvious.

Taylor had come to work the morning before, knowing that the five men would not be there. Their bodies had been carried out of a charred sofa warehouse shortly before his shift began, in the worst loss for an American fire department since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

For Taylor and his men, the next 24 hours at the station were trying. No fire calls came in. So they made the dead men's bunk beds, placing their helmets and their black stovepipe dress hats atop the tightly pulled sheets. They received a stream of visitors, including the families who came in to clean out their loved ones' lockers.

"I'm telling you, when you got kids crying and moms crying, it's hard," Taylor said. "Shoot, we grew up with all of these fellas."

Charleston's nickname is the Holy City, for the numerous steeples that rise from its low-slung skyline. But among firefighters, Taylor said, a streak of good fortune made it holier still: The Fire Department had not suffered an on-the-job fatality in more than 40 years.

Those fortunes turned in a matter of minutes Monday as a raging fire trapped and killed the nine men. Michael A. Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Firefighters Assn., is among those asking why so many firefighters were in the building in the first place.

"We have a lot of questions," Parrotta said. "For us, it's very hard to stomach how we lost nine firefighters in daylight in a single-story building in those conditions. It shouldn't have happened."

Generally, Parrotta said, fires are fought aggressively. But if the blaze continues to grow, the mode changes from offensive to defensive. That change is made at the discernment of the incident commander. Parrotta also noted that South Carolina was the only state not to follow a National Fire Protection Assn. recommendation that two firefighters stay outside a structure for every two that go in on rapid-intervention missions.

City officials would not discuss the details of the response Wednesday, citing a pending investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives. But Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said the city would review the Fire Department's response to determine if proper procedures were followed.

"I feel confident they were," he added.

Sandford said that sending the men into the fire, a decision he had no part in, squared with an aggressive attitude that in the past helped his department save untold blocks of historic buildings -- some of which date to the mid-18th century.

"We're old-school guys," he said. "If the fire's inside, you've got to go in and get it.... That's the way we do it. And until now, it worked for us.

"We got a saying," he said. "Don't be an 'outstanding' fireman -- meaning don't be left standing outside the fire."

Sandford, 45, was off-duty when the fire broke out. But he went to the scene of the disaster and worked until morning, crawling and digging for his dead comrades, then helping to carry them out of the wreckage.

He slept through most of Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, he showered, put on his uniform and headed to work. He stopped for breakfast at a grocery store, where he was mobbed by sobbing well-wishers.

By 8 a.m., Sandford -- a trim, wiry man with a blond mustache -- was standing by the open firehouse door, smoking a thin cigar and drinking a large cup of coffee.

The station flag was at half-staff, with flowers piled at the base of the pole. A stranger in a green sports car drove by, honked, doffed his cap and sped away.

Sandford, a New Jersey native, joined the department 15 years ago after a career selling building supplies. He took a big pay cut, but fighting fires had been a childhood dream. He said he couldn't resist a career that combined selfless public service with the promise of big adrenaline rushes.

The department he joined is enmeshed in the history and culture of its city. Many firefighters here boast that their fathers and grandfathers served. Two of the department's downtown stations date to the late 1800s, their handsome brick exteriors contributing to the charm of the tourist district. A third firehouse was erected in 1943 for the exclusive use of black firefighters. The department was integrated in the mid-1970s.

"You take pride in it," firefighter Eric Glover, 24, said of the legacy. "You take pride in yourself."

As their shift started Wednesday, some of the men gathered in the back around a beat-up coffee table, smoking cigarettes and poring over the local paper. The front-page headline read "Courageous."

Firefighter Pete Gessner was leafing through the pages when his girlfriend approached him, her hair still wet from a morning shower. She put her arms around his uniformed waist.

Sanford was joined by a few others at the front of the firehouse, staring out into the bright morning sun. Some spoke, and some did not.

There was a moment when Sandford tried to describe the scope of the loss, but it brought him to tears. He wiped them away with the back of his hand, almost as soon as they emerged.

"How you're supposed to act, no one knows," Sandford said. "We've still got a job to do. We can't all call in sick."


Fausset reported from Charleston and Jarvie from Atlanta.

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