Based on its findings, the NIST technical study team made 11 recommendations for enhancing building, occupant and firefighter safety nationwide. In particular, the team urged state and local communities to adopt and strictly adhere to current national model building and fire safety codes. If today’s model codes had been in place and rigorously followed in Charleston in 2007, the study authors said, the conditions that led to the rapid fire spread in the Sofa Super Store probably would have been prevented.
Using a state-of-the-art computer model to simulate the fire, the study team found that the addition of automatic sprinklers inside the loading dock could have significantly slowed the fire (which began just outside the dock area), prevented it from spreading beyond the dock, and eventually, extinguished it completely. The model also showed that sprinklers on the loading dock likely would have maintained what firefighters call tenability conditions, the ability for individuals in a fire event to escape unassisted.
Based on their model and the data collected, the NIST researchers determined the following sequence of events on June 18, 2007, at the Sofa Super Store:
- The fire began in trash outside the loading dock and spread into the enclosed loading dock. The fire spread from the exterior to the interior of the loading dock, which was used for staging furniture for delivery and repair. The fire spread quickly within the loading dock and moved into both the retail showroom and warehouse spaces.
- During the early stages of this fire, the fire was unable to access enough air, a state that slowed its growth. However, the lack of sufficient air for complete combustion did result in large volumes of smoke and combustible gases flowing into the space below the roof and above the drop ceiling of the main retail showroom.
- The fire spread to the rear of the main showroom through the holding area and ignited additional fuel in the rear of the main showroom, at which time it became more visible to firefighters in the main showroom.
- The growth of the fire at the back of the main showroom was still slowed by the lack of air. As the fire burned in the rear of the main showroom, the fire pumped more hot unburned fuel into the smoke layer below the drop ceiling. The lack of air prevented the unburned fuel in the smoke layer from igniting.
- When the front windows were broken (approximately 24 minutes after firefighters arrived at the store), additional air flowed in the front windows, along the floor and to the rear of the showroom, and became available to the fire. The additional air allowed the burning rate of the fire to increase rapidly and ignite the layer of unburned fuel below the drop ceiling.
- The fire swept from the rear to the front of the main showroom extremely quickly, then into the west and east showrooms, trapping six firefighters in the main showroom and three firefighters in the west showroom.
- Furniture and merchandise in the showrooms and warehouse continued to burn for an additional 140 minutes before the fire was extinguished.
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