In the wake of the Sofa Super Store fire in June 2007, which took the lives of nine firefighters, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the city would be remembered for how it responded to the tragedy. He has the same message today.
"Our commitment is that the legacy of this tragic fire be that the city's fire department become a national leader in firefighter training and safety," Riley told the City Paper on Friday.
E-mails recently released between the independent investigators hired to analyze the fire reveal biting and sometimes sarcastic exchanges. At first, the team seems flabbergasted at the department's antiquated fire response, followed by a back and forth of positive feedback and lingering frustration as they were forced to stand on the sideline, watching the department's slow progress out of what lead investigator Gordon Routley referred to in one exchange as "the dark ages."
It has been more than two years since the Fire Service Enhancement and Review Team gave its final report, which highlighted code violations at the scene and ripped the department for its antiquated equipment and training, as well as a cavalier attitude toward firefighting. Now, the release of the behind-the-scenes chatter has reopened old wounds. It would appear that the review team kept quiet on some of its sharpest critiques, leaving Riley unaware of a strong feeling among some team members, including Routley, that Fire Chief Rusty Thomas had to go.
Had the team's private communications come out during the nearly year-long investigation, it would have been yet another stinging critique of the fire department's leadership. With those leaders gone, the weight of these e-mails rests on the shoulders of the last member of the old guard: Mayor Riley.
In the early e-mails, Chief Thomas is painted as a guy who just didn't know any better, as flummoxed and bewildered as the rest of us that Charleston wasn't, in fact, a leader in fire safety. But some on the review team worried about his ability to adapt to new practices.
"I have to say that I am concerned for the integrity of our final report and keeping it intact as submitted if the mayor is going to be defending the fire chief and then having to explain our release (and) the recommendations to the public and making the two somehow equate," said review team member Brian Crawford in a September '07 e-mail.
Routley noted a few days later that he'd "explained Rusty's role and the resulting liability to the mayor ... Let's see if he changes his tune in future pronouncements."
For a short time, it appeared to work; Riley asked Routley's opinion on bringing in a "change-implementation agent." But that idea was scrapped, and two existing staff members were appointed to oversee improvements.
Left to watch, review team members appeared frustrated at the pace of those changes. In December '07, Routley sent out an e-mail suggesting it was time to call the mayor and recommend a change at the highest levels of the fire department.
"I think that we have given them lots of opportunities and they have proven their lack of skills," he wrote in an e-mail to the team.
There was debate among the members; some agreed. Crawford offered his "overwhelming support for ousting the leadership (and I use the term lightly) of the CFD." But others worried that the review team might be inadvertently doing the dirty work of cleaning house.
There was some talk of getting the message to the mayor by Christmas, but communication on the issue stopped. Riley tells the City Paper that he was never approached with a recommendation to replace the chief and discussions focused instead on new staff to help with the changes. Indeed, the focus in the e-mail exchanges shifted in the new year to building up a support team.
It wasn't until two days before the group's final recommendations in May that Thomas announced his resignation. Review team members passed around the news with surprisingly little commentary.
A week after the blaze, Routley was already at the Sofa Super Store site on Savannah Highway, surveying the damage. It would be weeks before he would officially take the helm of the city's independent review team, but Routley was already committed to finding out what happened — and he wanted it to be above reproach.
"Let's not contribute to the rumor and innuendo process by circulating a bunch of opinions and third-hand observations," Routley wrote in an e-mail to firefighting analyst Billy Goldfeder on June 25, 2007. "Let's get the facts and develop a professional analysis."
Those opinions and third-hand observations didn't get in the way of the group's work. It was clear very early on that Routley was suspicious of people with agendas. Former Charleston firefighters and anxious critics were persistently offering armchair analysis, but Routley kept them at a distance. The team released two comprehensive reports that have changed the way Charleston fights fires and set standards for how fire departments prevent and investigate firefighter fatalities.
In the weeks after the incident, Routley and his team internally offered strong critiques of the department's practices. In one e-mail, he says the department "missed out on about 40 years of fire service evolution."
In an e-mail on Oct. 18, 2007, Routley told a blogger that the mayor was ignorant of the department's failings.
"As far as the mayor is concerned. I have come to believe that he really thought his (fire department) was Class 1, top notch, and best in class," he said.
It appeared to Routley that the city and the mayor had been lulled into complacency due to the fire service's Class 1 rating from the insurance industry firm ISO. But the rating measures things like the coverage area for fire stations and the water supply, not the safety and experience of the firefighters.
A Post and Courier report last week suggested Routley and his team were critical of the politics and the spin machine from the city. But the e-mails show they seem surprisingly resolved to the fact that the mayor and the city had to do what they had to do.
"Three weeks before an election," Routley continued in his October e-mail. "(Riley) is a master old Southern politician, and he is working hard to make something ugly smell like a rose."
In the days before the fire review team's final report, an internal debate arose after city attorneys balked at a line in the draft stating it was the opinion of the review team "that [the] lives of nine firefighters would not have been lost at the Sofa Super Store if operations had been conducted in accordance with widely accepted fire service principles and practices."
Routley was ready to defend the comment and delay the release of the report, but team member Kevin Rouche and others argued the document would speak for itself.
"Even without the one line that they are objecting to, this is by no means a cover-up or softball report," he said.
Team member Tim Sendelbach added, "Any 'reasonable' citizen or trained professional can see the obvious."
With the release of the report, it was Thomas, not Riley, who took full responsibility for the department's failings. Three weeks later, Riley came around, sitting in front of the cameras once again to make it clear that the report's message came through even without the line.
"It pointed out many tragic causal factors, from the illegal addition to the Sofa Super Store building, without which this fatal fire would never have occurred, to a number of operational policies in our department that may have affected the safe and successful fighting of this fire," Riley said. "I recognize and acknowledge these shortcomings, I take responsibility for them, and state once again my commitment to correcting them."
Chief Rusty was out. Now this was Mayor Joe's fire.
City officials are quick to note this isn't the same fire department that it was in 2007. The top brass has been replaced after a nationwide search. The department has 36 new firefighters in the stations, providing an additional man on every truck, along with new leadership positions and safety and training teams. There are new equipment like breathing apparatuses, safer uniforms, and thermal imagers. And, most importantly, there's a new philosophy for fighting fires that includes a post-incident review, even when everything goes right.
It's likely ironic that Riley, who is accused of playing politics, takes little credit for the changes that have been made — deferring to the fire staff for its "leadership, commitment, and hard work" and to the six-member review team that seems so critical in private.
"The recommendations were solid, and they helped put us on the path," Riley says.
It seems Routley was right. Riley is one of those people who can make something as awkward and uncomfortable as these private e-mail exchanges still smell like a rose.