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Courage Under Fire

Lee Walton

My first reaction was visceral, like a quick fist to the gut that takes your breath away. How could this tragedy have happened in Charleston? How could nine brave men have died so quickly and violently protecting the life and property of those they served? After reading Tuesday morning’s Palter & Chatter headlines and numbly watching the morning news, the sorrow that followed created a solemn sense of profound helplessness. The upwelling of tears was unstoppable as the number of firemen, so tragically lost, was repeated again over the radio on the way to work. Why? Why did so many men have to die this way? Heroic, gallant, loyal, courageous – these mere words can never describe their final actions as they did their duty and made the ultimate sacrifice their profession often demands. Later, their names, faces and backgrounds personalize the loss even more. It was like losing a close business acquaintance or neighbor that you never took the time to really get to know. As the days passed last week, I developed a deeper understanding of the special bond and fraternal brotherhood these brave men shared as they lived, worked and finally died together. In the end, their courage never failed them – but their leaders did.

With credit where due, the Palter & Chatter gave a surprisingly frank and detailed account of the string of hapless events that culminated in this tragic, unnecessary loss of life in two articles on Saturday and another on Sunday. Stories of other firemen lost in similar truss roofed structure fires, lack of adequate pre-planning, lack of knowledge of this building’s not-so-hidden dangers, the revelation of a recent City Building Department Special Variance eliminating a code required, albeit potentially life saving, fire-wall and the apparent confusion over who had tactical command at the fire site quickly turned feelings of sorrow to profound anger.

“Federal workplace safety officials have long urged fire departments to use extreme caution when fighting fires in structures with trusses.” “Lives will continue to be lost unless fire departments make appropriate fundamental changes in fire fighting tactics involving trusses.” “There’s no debate in the fire service…We know it’s a dangerous structure…Never trust a truss.” – these quotes from Saturday’s Palter & Chatter articles broke the silence. The June 15, 2003 eerily “similar case” in Memphis, Tenn. described in Sunday’s page 9A article, Local, federal guidelines in conflict, was profoundly prophetic. Had Charleston’s firefighters known of these general and case-specific dangers of roof truss systems and also followed national on-site tactical command regulations, Monday night’s tragedy could have been avoided.

Tragically, the Charleston Fire Department’s April 2006 Super Sofa Store inspection and pre-planning report “…does not indicate that the building had a steel truss design.” Most revealing to the root of the tragedy were the comments of Charleston’s Fire Chief quoted in Saturday’s Palter & Chatter article, Danger can hide in roof trusses, - “As far as if they knew it was steel truss construction and stuff like that, I don’t know if my guys knew or not.” And therein lies the genesis of this unwarranted tragedy, without the benefits of prior knowledge of “…stuff like that…” nine brave lives were needlessly lost.

Chief Thomas obviously loves all of his “guys” deeply and feels the loss of nine of his bravest and best as deeply as any human emotions allow. He’s a talented fireman in his own right, but his lack of awareness and appreciation of nationally accepted procedural protocols, apparent caviler attitude about life safety issues involving truss supported roofs and lack of appreciation for lessons learned from other fire department’s tragic mistakes will cost him, his department, this City and nine families profound, unending suffering and grief.

Rusty Thomas’s meteoric rise from the rank-and-file within the CFD to Chief not so many years ago was not without public concern. He was a well-qualified firefighter and a recognized leader among the ranks. He was one of the Department’s regular “guys” - a typical Lowcountry “good old boy” that looked after his friends both on and off the job. He was a born firefighter who fit well within this special brotherhood that few outsiders can ever completely comprehend.

Surprisingly, Mayor Riley selected Rusty Thomas as Charleston’s new Fire Chief over more than two-dozen better educated, well seasoned, and more experienced candidates. Riley saw in Rusty Thomas one crucial quality he desired most, albeit one lacking in all other candidates – that of a faithful team player owing absolute allegiance to Riley. In short, Rusty Thomas was a politically expedient selection that would benefit Riley’s personal political ambitions. Like other subservient department heads, Riley wanted a Fire Chief to protect his back, make him look good, take orders and do his bidding faithfully without challenge or question. Rusty Thomas was and still is Riley’s man.

Again during his administration, Mayor Riley’s selection of a senior city official has given rise to serious unintended consequences. His selection of Rusty Thomas as Fire Chief may very well have been the catalyst that led the City of Charleston to this most recent unthinkable tragedy, The ultimate responsibility for the loss of nine courageous firemen may very well be Mayor Riley’s. Time, and an exhaustive state and federal investigation beyond local political influence, will tell.

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