Two-by-two, Charleston firefighters waded through the belly of the burning furniture store. Swirling black smoke choked the air around them and swallowed all light.
Sofas, chairs and bedding blocked their path at every turn. Darkness and confusion enveloped the men. As the blaze turned deadly, calls for help crackled over the fire department’s radios. One man prayed. From another: “Tell my wife I love her.”
Their tour of duty had come to an end. Nine lives. Gone.
The deaths Monday night at the Sofa Super Store on Savannah Highway marked the nation’s worst single loss of firefighters since 9/11, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In Charleston, which had not lost a firefighter in the line of duty since 1965, the loss was like a punch to the heart.
Sixteen reporters covered this tragic fire June 19 that claimed the lives of nine firefighters. Executive Editor Bill Hawkins said, “Our coverage included an account of what happened, biographies of all nine firefighters, the story of a rescue of a store employee trapped in the building and accounts of the mourning that would soon consume the city.”
Special assignments editor Doug Pardue said, “The difficulty for us was to show respect for that [mourning], while still trying to reveal the detail of what happened, a task made all the more difficult because everyone in the 250-member fire department was so consumed in and numbed by grief.”
Reporter Edward C. Fennell said, “We here can take a lot of pride in the fact that when duty calls, our staff answers. I saw only cooperation, professionalism and enthusiasm for getting a vital job done.”
Reporter Nadine Parks added: “We lost nine great men from our community that night. They were true American heroes in every sense, and I hope that our stories honored their lives.
Note: The Post and Courier’s coverage of the Sofa Super Store fire also won an award for non-deadline reporting for the paper’s continued coverage of the event.