CHARLESTON, S.C. - How did a trash fire in an outdoor bin spread to a furniture store and explode into a raging inferno that killed nine firefighters? And why were as many as 16 firefighters inside the place when the roof came down?
City and state officials announced plans to investigate as questions mounted Wednesday about the handling of the Sofa Super Store blaze, the nation's deadliest firefighting tragedy since 9/11.
Investigators want to know whether fire crews violated safe firefighting procedures and whether they were adequately trained and equipped.
Mayor Joseph Riley Jr. said he was confident that the department followed proper procedure but that the investigation was necessary.
"Part of the purpose is to look, for us or any fire department in the country, if there are lessons learned in terms of how well things were done or any aspect of it," Riley said.
The assistant fire chief who made the call that the building was safe to enter said firefighters initially thought the trash fire outside had not spread into the store. He said Wednesday night he had come to suspect that it was already burning in the ceiling when they arrived.
Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin said he made three trips in and out of the building in about five minutes and noticed the smoke getting worse. But it still seemed manageable enough for crews to go inside.
"We went, with the training we have, knowing we could put the fire out, and it just went awry," Garvin said. "Things did not happen like they normally happen. If there had been fire rolling out of those back doors, I wouldn't have sent them in. I don't care anything about a building."
Garvin said the fire and smoke seemed to intensify within minutes, leading him to think now that the fire was burning in the ceiling. He said he suspects the firefighters who died got lost in the building in thick smoke. He said their bodies were found separated from their fire hoses - their lifelines to getting back outside.
Fire officials vehemently defended their actions.
"The captains did exactly what they were trained to do. They didn't do anything they wouldn't have done at any other time. They didn't make a mistake when they first went in there," said Assistant Fire Chief Ronnie Classen.
The first firefighters on the scene initially reported that trash was on fire in a bin behind the building, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas said. As for why the fire could not be extinguished before it spread, he said, "I don't know."
One expert, Carl Peterson, director of public fire protection division at the National Fire Protection Association, said fire creeps into tough-to-detect places, moving through walls and other concealed spaces. Peterson said he did not have enough information to say whether fire officials made mistakes.
Peterson said there is no standard on the number of firefighters in a structure "as long as the building is safe."
"If fire is blowing out over your head, then it's 15 people too many in the building," he said.
Mike Parrotta, president of the South Carolina Professional Fire Fighters Association, said South Carolina is the only state that allows fire officials to sidestep a federal regulation that for every employee doing hazardous work inside a building, one must be outside.
Parrotta said that he did not know whether that played a role in Monday night's tragedy but that the issue needs to be raised.