Friday, October 19, 2007

Engine 6 on the Memorial (Ashley River) Bridge

I had an informal conversation with Charleston Fire Department Captain Mark Davis the other day. I say informal because, Chief Rusty Thomas has forbidden any member of the department from speaking to the media and informal because I didn't take notes or even record the conversation. So what follows is a best effort recall of a very detailed conversation.

A break in a life saving class that Mark Davis, was teaching gave me a chance to ask a question, how was moral at Charleston's Fire Department?

His answer, moral is as low as it could go. I had hoped Mark would say that moral was better; after all there had been a tremendous out pouring of support by the citizens of Charleston since the tragic fire at the Sofa Super Store. Billboards, hats, banners, fund raisers and the like, all expressing support for our firemen, and our fire department had to lift the spirits of Charleston’s finest. But moral is sadly, non existent.

A Charleston fire fighter since he was 18, the now much older Captain Davis and his engine company worked the Sofa Super Store fire on June 18th.

"This has been the worst year of my life" Davis went on to say.

As he told me about that night and that fire, tears came to his eyes and I wished I hadn't asked the question. By the time he showed me the burns on his wrist from that night, our one on one had become a quorum of eight and before he was done all fifteen of my classmates stood knee deep in a pool of emotion that can only be described as heartfelt gratitude.

Soon after the call came in at the Cannon Street Station, Engine 6 was "Code 3" (lights and siren) in route on the cross-town heading west.

Coming over the Ashley River Memorial Bridge and riding in the right seat, Captain Davis recalled he could see the massive black cloud of smoke over the west end of the bridge. He told his boys as they crossed the river, "looks like it's going to be a big one".

Photo by: Cedar Posts
Engine 11 was already at the scene, one of those who along with ladder 10, engine 5 and engine 19 where "first in" as they say. Engine 6 with Captain Davis was "second in".

The details of what happened next have been told and retold again and again but the image of a lone fire truck racing across the Ashley River Bridge is haunting, for on that same bridge a few days later a procession of over 100 fire trucks would cross the Ashley River to honor the 9 who responded that night, to what would be their final call.

Captain Davis went on to tell us, that inside the sofa super store it was like any other structure fire at first, hot and smoky. Everything was status quo, normal if you will for a building on fire.

He and a young fireman on the job only 8 months, crouched low inside the building to avoid the heat and smoke. Manning a 1 ½ inch line that was suddenly without water, he used his radio to call again and again for water but never heard a reply.

Later he would determine that he never heard the replies because he had some how sheared off the volume control on his radio.

If you listen to the recorded CFD radio calls you can hear Captain Davis and the replies he never heard. The calls for water, with replies of “we are trying” and “if we can just get the cops to stop the damn traffic” we can get the pressure up.

Within minutes a fellow fireman stumbled into Davis, he was short of air and Davis directed him to follow the hose back outside.

Then building went totally black and very quiet. The interior of the building was thick with choking acrid smoke, the silence was eerie, the kind of silence that comes just before a fierce thunderstorm and along with the silence he felt a true sense of doom.

Where he should have heard the usual sound of firemen barking orders inside a burning structure there was nothing, just silence and heavy smoke. Not even the sound of a crackling fire and he knew it was a bad sign.

The flames all at once sprang up the interior sides of the building curling upward and across the ceiling. At this point his air was low and without water he realized they needed to make a retreat.

As Davis led the younger firemen, they struggled to get out of the building; their retreat blocked by roll up doors that somehow had closed behind them.

Up and over burning boxes of furniture they climbed, able to see only a few inches in any direction, he nearly fell on top of Fireman Billy Kilcoyne.

Kilcoyne and Davis both stumbled outside. Davis' air supply was completely out, he fell to the ground gasping for air just as the building exploded in flames and the roof collapsed.

Captain Davis is good looking, and comes across as just an honest and hard working country boy. He held his emotion as he recalled hearing that one fireman was unaccounted for, and how they immediately began a search.

It wasn't long before they found the missing fire fighter face down in the rubble. Speechless, and filling with sorrow they stood over their fallen comrade. There was nothing they could do.
Then word came that there might be another, then two more, and then it was four. Then five.

Soon the number was six.

You can listen to the radio calls and get the sense of the confusion. The names called again and again but no answer.

Then there were seven names, and then eight, then nine names all unaccounted for and missing.
Captain Davis and others were is shock, it couldn't be true. Nine, there had to be a mistake. But before long they had five bodies and the reality painfully began to set in.

In telling this, Davis held back the tears; his voice broke just a little. I couldn't help but tell him that I was glad he made it out and in typical firemen casualness in the face of insane adversity he smiled and answered "me too, .... me too, I am so damn lucky".

And I continue to think of that lone fire truck crossing the Ashley River Memorial Bridge.

Cedar Posts Update:

On the one year anniversary June 17, 2008 Charleston's Post and Courier published a follow-up to the above story. "Cheating Death" writen by P&C staff writer Ron Menchaca profiled Mark Davis and Billy Kilcoyne as well as Thaddeus Morgan.

The takeaway? Never doubt the power of the blog vs the main stream press. As one CFD firefighter told me, "Their story would have never been told had you not told it first."

Photo by Mic Smith

During the night of the Sofa Super Store fire, the crew from Engine 6 was the last out of the building. Capt. Mark Davis (left), engineer Billy Kilcoyne (center) and firefighter Thaddeus Morgan talk about their experience during the fire.


Westie said...

Hello Cedar, found your blog following the info on the accidental death of Lucas Smith. I met Lucas as a customer of the Dry Cleaning shop here on IOP. He was a true gentleman in his business dealings and always a spot of sunshine. I'm sorry he has passed on but glad to see and read about the positive legacy he has left behind.
BTW your blog is terrific. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I come back to this story again and again. This was really epic failure of leadership. The CFD command structure was top heavy with incompetence. There was a total lack of training and the blame lies squarely on Mayor Joe, the chief and those in charge of the fire ground that night.