Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Remembering the Charleston 9 Six-Year Anniversary

Photo from 943WSC News Radio Station
by Miranda Jacobs
       Tuesday, June 18, marked the sixth-year anniversary of the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire, a tragedy that took the lives of nine brave firefighters. The Sofa Super Store was a furniture outlet located at 1807 Savannah Highway in West Ashley. The fire began at approximately 7:00 p.m. on June 18, 2007. The Charleston Fire Department received a call reporting the fire at 7:08, and firefighters arrived to the scene by 7:11. Within one hour, flames and thick clouds of smoke overtook the building and trapped nine firefighters inside. Around 7:30, a distressed “Mayday!” was heard over the radio, followed by a firefighter’s final request for someone to tell his wife that he loves her. Another firefighter was heard whispering his final prayer.
       Autopsy reports reveal that each of the men died from a combination of smoke inhalation and thermal burns. An investigation of the fire, conducted by the City of Charleston Post Incident Assessment and Review Team, suggests that the fire was caused by cigarette smoking materials. The fire was ignited outside in the loading dock, an area next to a wooden ramp where employees smoked on their break. The wooden ramp, numerous pieces of wooden furniture, and containers of flammable liquids fueled the fire.
       I recently interviewed Rick Bassin, a firefighter for the Goose Creek Fire Department that felt the loss of the Charleston 9, as did firefighters all over the United States. Bassin describes how the tragedy affected him and his fellow firefighters, as well as discusses his career as a firefighter and the life lessons he has gained from it.

Q:  Did you know the firefighters that died in the Sofa Super Store fire?
A:  I knew three of them; Capt. Billy Hutchinson cut my hair all the time at Williams Barber Shop, and Mike French and Brandon Thompson were volunteer firefighters at Pine Ridge Fire Dept. 

Q:  How did the fire affect you and your fellow firefighters?
A:  It was a grave loss, a very sad day. Anytime there is a line of duty death, regardless of whether or not we know the person, it is very sad because we are all brothers and sisters that share a common bond as firefighters that not many others can understand. But here it hit home, we knew some of the guys. It ripped our guts out. We didn’t just hear names—we knew them and their families. We looked for change and how to prevent this from ever happening again. We looked at our own mortality and families, and we looked to do things smarter and better.

Q:  Has there been change in rules and regulations at work since the fire?
A:  In some fire depts. there have been major changes for the better of the dept. and the guys serving there. In my dept. there has been one or two—not nearly enough for us to be as safe as we can be. Sometimes in small depts. no change happens until a firefighter is killed.

Q:  How do you prepare for tragedies like the Sofa Super Store fire? Does being a firefighter require emotional preparation in order to handle such tragedies?
A:  I don’t know that you can prepare yourself. We all know that things like this are possible. At the start of my shift I know that it could be my last, but I don’t let that dictate how I work or go about my day. The people that call for our help need us to bring our A game, so that’s what we give. Our citizens come first, we come second. Our emotions play a big part in who we are: compassionate people willing to give our all for others. We bury hardships, anger, frustrations, sadness, and all the other feelings that tear people apart deep down inside, and we press on—no time for sorrow, pity, grief, or pain.

Q:  How do you manage the stress of your job?
A:  I honestly don’t know.

Q:  Have you ever wished that you would have chosen a different career?
A:  Yes. There can be a lot of pain and hardships to deal with.  There is a lot of mental stress and sometimes the administration and the public really take you for granted.

Q:  Why did you decide to be a firefighter?
A:  I knew that helping people was more important than helping myself. I had something in me that made me a little different from most: when people feared the chaos that was happening around them, I was at peace. I wasn’t afraid to run in when others ran out. Everyone has a gift, something they were meant to do. This is mine.

Q:  When did you realize that you wanted to be firefighter?
A:  I’ve wanted to be a firefighter for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was the Asst. Chief of our dept. back home in Ohio. As a kid I used to try to beat him to the door when the alarm went off… I never won. All I ever saw was him running across the street to the firehouse, then pulling out in the truck, lights flashing, a pull on the air horn, and Grandma standing beside me saying “be safe, hurry home…”

Q:  Did you run into any completely unexpected surprises when you first began firefighting?
A:  Yes, I did. How death really looks, how it really smells, and the harsh reality of it.

Q:  Have you had to overcome any fears or weaknesses to be a successful firefighter?
A:  My biggest fear is failure to make sure that I do everything in my power to save someone. I have to know that I did everything right, no mistakes. And confined spaces… I didn’t like those much when I was younger, but now I do a lot of technical rescue work and find it rather relaxing.

Q:  Have you had to make any sacrifices for your job?
A:  Yes. This job can make a person cold, detached at times. It’s hard to open up and communicate like other people do, so we lock things up; sometimes the people we love don’t get 100% of us, so our outside relationships can strain. We also miss holidays, birthdays, and other important dates because we are on duty.

Q:  Tell me about a specific experience that was the most rewarding for you as a firefighter.
A:  In July 2000, I was a Capt. for the Sumter County Fire Dept., and we got a call for a child struck by a car. We responded and we found a 4-year-old little boy, Ryan Garrett, laying on his grandma’s couch, not breathing, no pulse. John H., Wayne M., and I did CPR on this child for thirty minutes until an ambulance finally showed up. When they hooked him up to the monitor he had a pulse, and we continued to breathe for him until we turned him over to the emergency room. We saved his life; he had a broken neck and was on a vent, but he was alive. After that, every time I was out and about and his mom or grandma saw me they would run up and hug and thank me for what I had done. I spent time at their house, eating and watching TV with him; the family even had me sit with them at his funeral when he passed three years later. I guess nowadays a simple thank you is the most rewarding; there is no bad ending to that.

Q:  Is there a specific experience that was the most painful for you?
A:  Yes, the loss of my best friend and fellow fireman. In January 2001, we got a call for a car wreck involving a firefighter. I was on my way to the station so I went straight to the scene. My best friend and firefighter under me, Wayne Miller, rolled his car, was ejected from the vehicle during the rollover, and the car landed on top of him, killing him. Not only did I have to make the notifications to the department, and his father, but I was requested to escort him to Arlington Cemetery to be laid to rest. Placing him in the body bag was one of the worst days of my life.

Q:  Has there ever been a time on-duty that you feared for your life?
A:  Yes. I was fighting a house fire with a newer guy. We were in the house pretty deep, and the attic flashed over; it pushed a lot of fire down on us, creating a violent rollover. I wasn’t feeling too good about things at that time. I had a guy with me that was scared, and it was my responsibility to make sure he got home. And my son was sitting in my truck watching all of this unfold. It scared me, and I did things a lot smarter from then on.

Q:  How would you compare the bond between you and fellow firefighters to the bond between you and friends that are not firefighters? Is there a difference? I ask this because it is only your friends at work that you stand beside as each of you put your lives on the line to save others and witness death.
A:  I can’t describe it. I don’t think there are words to describe the bonds between firefighters. We don’t do this job for any kind of fortune or any kind of fame, and for the most part it’s a thankless job. We are the ones that pat each other on the back after an all-night burner or technical rescue—no one else. And we are family no matter where we go; we are welcomed into every firehouse and we are sat down to eat with them, sharing each other’s food, joking and ragging on each other. And the most important thing is that I will have their back and they will have mine. If one falls 1000 miles away, we all feel the pain and loss, and we know they laid down their life just as we would. It’s the job that no one else wants or does that holds all of us together; the hours, the mental and physical tolls, the hardships—we all experience them and we share them as one. Yes, the bond is a little different from the bond with “normal” friends. Our “normal” friends don’t understand us. They say we are a little crazy…

Q:  Would you encourage others to become firefighters?
A:  Only if that is what they really wanted to do. It’s not a job for everyone. It’s different from other jobs. The demands are different. Some just don’t have it in them to do it.

Q:  What qualities do you think a person needs to have in order to be a successful firefighter?
A:  Integrity, honesty, selflessness, willingness to go above and beyond for total strangers, willingness to take the risks involved, a desire to succeed, being a team player, and thick skin.

Q: What advice you would give someone that is considering becoming a firefighter?
A:  Train, train, train. When you get hired, keep your mouth shut and listen. The stories and the ragging that the old guys will give you will save your life one day, and you will learn from watching and listening to them.

Q:  Have you ever worked alongside a female firefighter?
A:  Yes, four.

Q:  Would you encourage a woman to become a firefighter?
A:  Yes, if that’s what she wanted to do. I know some remarkable female firefighters. As long as a person, regardless of gender, can effectively do the job, then I would say “Go for it.” If you can pull your own weight, because I can’t do both my job and yours when things get bad, then I don’t care what gender you are. Good firefighters are just that: good firefighters.

Q:  What is the most important life lesson your job has taught you?
A:  I can’t save the world. And don’t take life for granted… I’ve seen too many people die before their time.

Q:  Okay, last question: have you ever rescued a cat from a tree?
A:  No, BUT… I have rescued a squirrel out of a chimney.




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