The Charleston, S.C., Sofa Super Store fire was still smoldering when Executive Editor Bill Hawkins and his team at The Post and Courier began their investigation. Nine firefighters had died in the blaze, the largest single loss of firefighters’ lives since 9/11. The process was complicated, according to Hawkins, as “we had to unfold the story carefully and with empathy for grieving families. While our front pages were dominated by funerals of the fallen nine firefighters, our reporters started asking the tough questions about what went so wrong.”
The investigation “would reveal a complete breakdown in training, equipment and leadership at the city fire department,” said Doug Pardue, special assignments editor. “The department had stubbornly held onto a hard-charging tradition of rushing into fires to put them out and had failed to keep up with modern advances in firefighting techniques and equipment.”
One difficulty, Pardue added, was, “it’s always hard to expose failings in a sacred cow” — in this instance, Charleston’s supposedly first-rate fire department.
The investigation also uncovered that the Sofa Super Store, along with other buildings in the city, lacked fire sprinklers in part because of the city of Charleston’s expensive connection fee.
“Super Store Sofa Fire” had many positive effects, including the replacement of dated firefighting equipment. In addition, Pardue pointed out, “the city has dropped all fire sprinkler hook-up fees and the state is considering similar reform.”
The team responsible for this series, which spanned June 23 to Oct. 7, also included Glenn Smith, general assignment/crime; Ron Menchaca, investigative reporter; Tony Bartelme, senior investigative reporter; David Slade, Charleston city reporter; and Robert Behre, general assignment/columnist. Behre said this award is “recognition that when the Charleston community faced one of its saddest and most shocking days, our staff pulled together and helped begin the healing by accurately and thoroughly reporting on the fire.”
Judges hailed the story as accomplishing one “of the hardest, and most important, jobs of the press in our democratic society: asking the tough, hard questions even when the public maybe doesn’t want to hear the answers. They held officials accountable and effected change.”
Note: The Post and Courier’s first-day coverage of the Sofa Super Store fire also won an SDX award for Deadline Reporting.