Charleston fire: Building codes partially to blame

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Building code violations contributed to Sofa Super Store tragedy
By David Slade
The Post and Courier
Thursday, May 15, 2008

If building codes and other regulations had been followed at the Sofa Super Store building, nine firefighters would not have died there last summer, a city-funded analysis of the fire has concluded.

“The fire could have been prevented,” the report says. “If the property had been constructed and maintained in accordance with state and local codes the fire would have been quickly controlled: no lives would have been lost and the fire would have been of little consequence.”

According to the report, combustible materials were improperly stored where employees were allowed to smoke, a loading dock was enclosed without permits and did not meet code requirements, and locked exit doors and obstructed pathways played a role in the deadly consequences of the June 18 fire.

Nine city firefighters dies battling the blaze, in the nation’s worst loss of firefighter lives since 9/11. The fire started on the Sofa Super Store loading dock, and the suspected cause is carelessly disposed smoking materials.

The report found that four additions to the Sofa Super Store building were constructed since the late 1990s without permits, and they compromised fire safety by eliminating the separation between the buildings. In addition, the unpermitted construction invalidated a building code provision that allowed the main buildings to be constructed without automatic sprinklers.

“On June 18, 2007, there were no effective fire walls or physical separations to stop a fire that originated in the loading dock area from spreading into the three adjoining areas,” the report found.

Laura Cabiness, who oversees building inspection and code enforcement as director of Charleston’s Public Service Department, said the city first learned of the unpermitted additions while viewing aerial photographs of the property after the fire.

ěWe pointed that out from the very beginning,î she said.

The city had not done a fire code inspection of the building since 1998, around the time Charleston adopted a new statewide building code that did not require annual inspections of commercial properties.

ěWe were still doing large numbers of fire inspections, but we were not doing random inspections,î Cabiness said. ěWe did the inspections we were required to do.î

She said the city is developing a plan to resume random inspections.

The Fire Department did conduct planning visits to the Sofa Super Store property, but did not look for code violations.

ěThis is about lessons learned and doing things better in future,î Cabiness said. ěWe have hired a chief fire inspector, which was a position we did not have before, and we are hiring more fire inspectors.î

Cabiness said the city has not fined or penalized the Sofa Super Store owners for the building code violations discovered after the fire. Normally, if a building is constructed without a permit, the city penalizes the owner by charging double the usual permit fee and halting work until a permit is obtained.

With the Sofa Super Store buildings destroyed, there are no buildings left to permit.

ěWe are geared toward bringing people into compliance, so we havenít taken any action,î she said. ěItís not really a punitive process. Had we known about this before the fire, we would have put the building owner on notice that he had to come into compliance.î

The Sofa Super Store site in West Ashley has been cleared, and last month the city agreed to buy the land for $1.85 million, to preserve it for a future memorial.

Key factors identified in the fire analysis, relating to the building and property, are listed in the following excerpt from the report.

The Sofa Super Store was a high risk occupancy that presented several specific risks to the health and safety of firefighters. The fire risk factors that were found in this occupancy also presented risks to the employees, customers, neighbors, and the surrounding community. The level of fire risk exceeded the limits prescribed by established regulations and would have ó or should have – been mitigated if the applicable codes and standards had been followed, applied, and enforced.

The fire could have been prevented. If the property had been constructed and maintained in accordance with state and local codes the fire would have been quickly controlled: no lives would have been lost and the fire would have been of little consequence.

–The fire would not have occurred if the combustible materials had not been stored in proximity to a smoking area or of smoking had been prohibited in that area.

–The fire would have been quickly controlled with minor damage if a sprinkler system had been installed.

–A sprinkler system would have been required if the building owner had obtained permits for the loading dock and other “fill-in” construction projects. (The Building Code would have required the installation of a sprinkler system unless the property could be divided into compartments by a system of fire walls. If the fire walls had been constructed the fire would likely not have extended beyond the loading dock.)

–The fire would not have spread to the showroom areas or the warehouse if the loading dock enclosure had not been constructed.

–The fire would have been less severe if flammable liquids had not been improperly stored in the loading dock.

–The firefighters might have been able to find their way out of the building if the required exits had been properly maintained.

–The code violations would have been discovered if the City of Charleston had conducted regular fire inspections and if firefighters had been trained to identify code violations during pre-fire planning visits and report them to the Inspections Department.