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NIST Study on Charleston Furniture Store Fire, Video Transcript

NIST Study on Charleston Furniture Store Fire, Video Transcript (back to news release)

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Good afternoon.  Just a word about NIST.  For over a century, NIST's mission has been to advance measurement, science, standards, and technology for the benefit of the American people.  Within NIST, the building and fire research programs strive to anticipate and meet the measurement, science, standards, and technology needs of the building and fire safety communities.  My colleagues from NIST and I are here today to provide a briefing and announce the release of a draft report of our technical study of the Sofa Super Store fire.  The fire occurred in Charleston on the evening of June 18, 2007, and resulted in the deaths of nine firefighters from your community.  Our study focused on determining the likely technical causes of the rapid fire growth that contributed to the high number of firefighter casualties in this fire.  Based on the findings in the study, we are recommending specific improvements to model building standards, codes, and practices.  While NIST has no regulatory authority and can't require the changes, we are committed to, and will work diligently with standards bodies, model code bodies, and professional societies to encourage the adoption of our recommendations.  We will also work for their adoption by state and local agencies that have the ultimate authority to implement the changes for the safety and benefit of the American people.  We know this community has suffered a terrible tragedy.  We trust our work will be an important step to avoid such tragedies in other communities across the country.  We are releasing the draft report for a 30-day public comment period.  We encourage all to review our report and give us comments that could make our recommendations as effective as possible.  Nelson Bryner, who led the study and is the deputy chief of our Fire Research Division, will now give you a summary of our study and its recommendations.

Nelson Bryner: Thank you, Bill.  Good Afternoon.  As Bill has just mentioned, NIST is a scientific research organization.  We chose to study the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire because it was clearly an unusual and tragic event.  We hope to learn new information about, new information that would be helpful to firefighters and the public in the future.  Today, I'd like to summarize what we found about how the Sofa Super Store fire spread and grew; what conditions, such as temperatures, oxygen concentrations, and smoke movement, occurred within the structure during the fire; what model fire codes, standards, and practices we recommend be changed as a result of what we've learned during our study.  It's also important to note, it's also important to know what we did not study during this effort.  We recognize that many in the community would like to know precisely how the nine firefighters who lost their lives in this fire became trapped and were unable to escape.  Many would like to know whether specific decisions made by individuals or organizations before, during, or after the fire were the right decisions.  Our study was focused on our specific expertise--fire science--and we cannot tell you based on our findings how or why the firefighters became trapped.  We also cannot tell you whether the decisions made before, during, or after the fire were right or wrong.  What we can tell you, with reasonable accuracy, is the probable technical cause for the fire's rapid spread and what actions can be taken to hopefully prevent loss of life from a similar type of fire in the future.  We conducted our study in the following way:  we arrived at Charleston 36 hours after the fire and began collecting as much data as possible about the store, its contents on the day of the fire, the fire event itself; we gathered records about the building; we gathered video and photographs of the store before, during, and after the fire; radio transmissions from first responders during the fire; we conducted informal discussions with store employees, interviews with firefighters, and reviewed other public material describing the event.  Then we took all the data we had collected and used it to generate a timeline of events and to simulate, with a computer model developed at NIST, the most probable sequence of fire behavior that matched well with the visual and other records available about what had actually happened.  With this computer modeling software, we can input data about many characteristics of a specific fire, and then model--the model uses a set of rules based on what we know about the physics of fire to simulate the changes in temperature, oxygen levels, smoke, and other variables.  In your handout, on page five, you have the key events in the overall timeline that we constructed.  It begins with the fire being observed at the rear of the store at 6:56 PM and continues to the collapse of the roof over the west portion of the Main Showroom at 7:51, and finally, to the fire being brought under control at 10 PM.  With this timeline of the actual fire in place, we then created simulations of the fire behavior within the Sofa Super Store.  First, we established what we call the fuel load--the type and amount of combustible material in the building.  The fuel load in some furniture stores, and especially those with large open display areas like the Sofa Super Store, is higher than in most retail spaces.  We estimated the energy content of the fuel load from our, from the foam-filled furniture in the showroom and the loading dock areas of the store.  We estimated it to be about 610 gigajoules.  For comparison, a hundred gallons of gasoline contains about 12 gigajoules of energy.  We also created floor plans of the space, based on our observations at the site, determined the materials used to construct the various parts of the building, and whether sprinklers were present.  We established which windows and doors were open at what times to determine the air and how the air and the smoke flowed.  We gathered weather data.  A key finding of this data- gathering effort was the fact that the store did not have automatic sprinklers.  Once we had described the conditions as accurately as possible, we ran several different simulations and matched them up against the photographs, the videos, the radio transmissions, interviews, and other data available that described the Sofa Super Store fire.  The simulation that best matched the available data is the most probable fire sequence.  I will show several of these simulations in just a minute.  A technical computer simulation like this one is a science-based set of moving images that approximates how an event occurred.  It is not identical to the actual event, since we don't have all the details of the store design and its comments, or the computing power to include every detail about this fire or any fire in the model.  It can, however, tell us with reasonable accuracy, what temperatures were like at various times during the fire, how the fire moved over time, what the oxygen levels were at different times and locations in the building, and how much smoke was generated by the burning furniture in the store and where it flowed.  The simulations we created to visualize the Sofa Super Store fire were, by necessity, complex and time-consuming to run.  Each simulation required about four days of computing time, and the entire study required more than 250 separate runs.  While the fire engulfed both the store showrooms and the warehouse, our simulations did not include the warehouse since no firefighters were trapped in the warehouse and the fire in the warehouse did not directly affect the fire in the showrooms.  In this slide, I think we need to--somebody will--okay. So in this slide, you see the floor plan as it is in the model for the Sofa Super Store.  You see how the furnitures are laid out--Main Showroom, East Showroom, West Showroom.  In this slide, okay, we're looking at, the temperature slice 5 feet above the floor.  The video is 20 times real time, and blue temperature, blue color indicates 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  When the colors turn to red, it's in excess of 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  Let me see if I can run this now.  Now, you're going to see the fire start in the loading dock area.  It's then going to spread to the holding area into the main--rear of the Main Show Room.  So you can now see the fire is in the loading dock area.  Very quickly, temperatures exceed that 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  The fire is now beginning to move into the holding area.  Again, once the smoke and flames gained access to the holding area through an open roll-up door, the holding area did not have a drop ceiling, and the smoke began to move up and into the void space above the drop ceiling for the entire Main Show Room.  At some particular point, the fire breaks through into the rear of the Main Showroom through the wall of the holding area.  At this particular point, the fire is ventilation-limited, it does not have enough oxygen to continue to spread quickly.  It begins to move forward, but then slows, and then the windows are broken in the front of the store.  This provides additional oxygen, and the fire moves quickly to the front, the west side of the Main Showroom, and then to the east side of the Main Showroom, and then into the West Showroom.  Okay.  Let's see here.  This is another simulation.  This one, again, you'll be looking at it from the same perspective, it's the movement of smoke and flame.  These, the data is pictured 5 feet five above the floor; it's running about 20 times real time.  Again, you see the smoke in the loading dock rapidly accumulate.  The smoke is now moving across the Main Showroom in the void space, some smoke is making it into the West Showroom.  Again, the back of the Main Showroom, where the heaviest density of smoke is at, at, the fire is ventilation-limited, it cannot grow very quickly because it doesn't have enough oxygen.  The fire is about ready to break through.  It has broken through now into the rear of the Main Showroom.  It's now beginning to move a little bit forward, but it's limited again because it doesn't have enough oxygen.  It continues to move a little bit, but not very quickly.  And then about 24 minutes into--after the fire arrived, they break the windows, and again, you can see the orange flame front move more rapidly to the front of the store on the west side, and then over to the east side, and then it moves into the West Show Room as well.  The next simulation is oxygen levels.  Normal ambient air has about 21 percent oxygen.  Previous research has shown that a person without oxygen from a breathing apparatus will have difficulty escaping if the air contains less than 12 percent oxygen.  In these simulation runs, you'll see the changes in colors.  Blue is ambient oxygen, 21 percent, that which we have now; 12 percent is that untenable that I just described.  It will be the red color.  So again, you see the fire starting on the loading dock.  It very quickly depletes the oxygen in much of the loading dock there.  It begins to deplete the oxygen in the holding area.  It does not move much into the rear of the West Showroom.  It moves into the holding area, and then it begins to breach the wall between the holding area and into the rear of the Main Showroom.  Now, the holding area has gone below 12 percent, and you can begin to see it's drawing down the concentration across the whole showroom.  You can also see at the front there, a little burst of blue.  That's the fresh air coming in the front door.  Excuse me.  Again, the fire is ventilation-limited at the rear, pauses, and then when they break the windows, the fire moves rather dramatically to the front of the Main Showroom.  Excuse me.  And you can see that at this particular point, the entire--all the showrooms are now completely untenable.  Based on the data that we've collected during the studies, and I've just shown, as well as the additional simulations available on the CD that is provided with our full report, we've reached the key findings.  The Sofa Super Store fire progressed at a rapid rate due to several important factors.  These factors include: large open spaces and doorways that remained open, allowing the fire to move from the loading dock to the showroom and between the various showrooms; high fuel loads provided by the foam-filled furniture; the lack of automatic sprinklers to suppress the fire in its early stages; metal walls that allowed the heat from the fire to move from the loading dock to the showrooms and to the warehouse and ignite items in these adjacent spaces as well; the venting of smoke by breaking the store's front windows provided additional air to the fire.  To examine how the use of automatic sprinklers may have changed the outcome of the Sofa Super Store fire, we also ran simulations showing what would have happened if sprinklers had been installed on the loading dock.  On the left, you see the temperature simulation that I showed you earlier.  That is the most probable fire sequence, temperature, 5 feet above the floor.  Using the same color scale, 70 is blue, is 70 degrees F, red, is slightly over 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  And on the right, sprinklers have been installed in the loading dock area.  Let's see if I can get both of these to--so I've activated--started both simulations.  If you don't see much activity on the sprinkler side, that is because the sprinklers activated at 50 seconds and at 75 seconds, and they've controlled the fire on the loading dock.  The conditions on the loading dock will remain blue for the rest of the simulation; they will remain tenable for the rest of the simulation.  Again, the sprinklers activated within 50 to 75 seconds, and the fire does not spread beyond the loading dock.

The findings I have just described led us to several important recommendations.  First, furniture stores represent a significant fire hazard, and all states and local jurisdictions should adopt model building and fire codes that specifically address high fuel load commercial spaces.  Second, to ensure that hazardous conditions, such as the lack of appropriate fire doors, fire walls, and sprinklers are identified and corrected, all state and local jurisdictions should implement aggressive fire inspection and enforcement programs, and ensure that inspectors are professionally qualified to a national standard.  Third, all state and local authorities should adopt and enforce model codes that require automatic sprinkler systems for all new commercial retail furniture stores, regardless of size, and all existing furniture stores with any single display area greater than 2,000 square feet.  We've also made several recommendations for additional research efforts that would further advance the understanding of upholstered flame spread--upholstered furniture flame spread, improved fire barriers, decision aids to help communities allocate their fire safety resources, ventilation of burning structures, and the performance measures for fire protection.  When NIST issues a report of a fire study like this one, we often provide it in draft form so that the comments from the public can be considered.  We urge that all parties review the draft report and send us their comments by December 2nd to fire safety [at] (safety[at]nist[dot]gov).  Directions for submitting comments are provided on our Web site at  In summary, the key lessons learned from our study are that a community's fire safety depends upon the use and enforcement of model building and fire codes that address the specific hazards and fuel loads of different types of spaces.  Furniture stores typically have large amounts of combustible material and represent a significant fire hazard.  As a result, model building codes should require that both new and existing stores have automatic sprinklers, especially if those stores include large, open display areas.  Thank you, and at this point, we'd be happy to take your questions.

I'm going to pass around a microphone if I could ask, we can, state your name and your organization.

Yes, sir.

It's not on? Let's see.

Harve Jacobs: Hello, hello.  Anybody hear me?  Okay.  My name is Harve Jacobs.  I'm with WCSC TV, the CBS affiliate here in Charleston.  Sir, bottom line, if there were sprinklers inside that store, we wouldn't be here today?

Nelson Bryner: The computer simulations demonstrate that the sprinklers would have activated in 50 to 75 seconds and would have controlled the fire on the loading dock.  The fire would not have spread to the showrooms.

Glenn Smith: Did--Glenn Smith from the Post and Courier.  Did you do any simulations to look at how the fire might have behaved if the windows had not been vented in the front?

Nelson Bryner: Yes, sir.  There were five scenarios included in this technical study that are described in the report.  The first one is the most probable fire sequence; the second one is sprinklers on the loading dock; the third is intact windows, the left front windows were left intact; the fourth is a small vertical vent, a roof opening; and the fifth was a large roof opening.

Glenn Smith: What were the findings?  The venting--I'm sorry--the differences in venting, what were the conclusions from that?

Neslon Bryner: In terms of the small vertical vent on the roof, it did not appear to have a significant impact over how the fire spread relative to the windows-intact case.  In terms of the large vertical vent on the roof, it did appear to delay the movement of the fire from the rear of the Main Showroom for a significant period of time.  However, the fire did continue to move and did emerge at the front of the store.

Other questions?

Are you saying that, sir, the--are you saying the windows never should have been broken open during this fire?

Neslon Bryner: Our study focused on the fire spread within the showrooms.  We did not analyze tactics that were used by the fire department.  Ventilation is often used by fire departments.  The study simulations demonstrate that when the windows were broken, it provided additional oxygen to the fire at the rear of the show room, which caused it to move quickly to the front of the showroom.

Did you ever arrive at a cause of the fire, what caused the trash material to ignite?

Neslon Bryner: No, we did not.  Again, our focus was on the movement of the fire within the structure.  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms report indicated that the fire had been initiated in a pile of trash outside.  Interviews with store employees demonstrated that when he discharged the fire extinguisher, that the fire was around the door frame at about the same--underneath the sort of around the door frame exhaust fan area in the loading dock, which was consistent with the fire moving inside.

Chris Smith: Chris Smith, the AP.  You had indicated that the opening the windows helped the fire spread through the showroom.  Did you--was there any study of if they had not have opened that, how long a time it would have been until the showroom itself was fully involved?

Neslon Bryner: Yes, and in chapter four of the report, the third case, is the front windows being left intact.  It did--the fire did not move as rapidly to the front of the store, it remained ventilation-limited for a longer period of time, but it did eventually move to the front of the store.

How much--approximately, how much time?

Neslon Bryner: I don't recall off the top of my head.  That would be in chapter four.

Greg Hambrick: Greg Hambrick with the Charleston City Paper.  Can you give us a layman's description of the oxygen levels in the front of the store just before the windows were broken out, what that oxygen--what the oxygen levels would have been--or not oxygen--I'm sorry--smoke levels, how thick the smoke was?

Neslon Bryner: Once the--let's go back a little bit.  Okay.  Once the fire had reached the rear of the Main Showroom, it had gone--it had breached the wall between the holding area and the rear of the Main Showroom.  At that particular point, the fire was oxygen-limited.  It didn't have enough oxygen.  So it was beginning to generate quantities of unburned fuel and smoke.  This was collecting underneath the drop ceiling in the Main Showroom.  The simulation demonstrates that at about the time that the windows would have been broken out, the smoke had reached near the floor.  Photographs, video, as well as still photos from the scene, demonstrate that when they broke the windows, brown smoke flowed out of the windows immediately.  Within a minute, the color of the smoke turned to a much darker black color.  And with a minute after that, you had flames coming out the front.

Harve Jacobs: So with all due respect, sir, if you think people are trapped inside of that place, how do you go in after them?  You break the windows open, that's a problem; ventilation that's a problem. What do you do?

Nelson Bryner: Again, we did not--our study focused on understanding why the fire spread quickly within the structure.  We did not, we did not analyze tactics or other considerations.

You point out that an inspector's enforcement program should be trained to national standards.  How about fire fighters themselves?  Any recommendations along those lines or--

Nelson Bryner: I think that--we believe that fire fighters should--in all states, in all jurisdictions--should be trained to the national standards, yes.

You had mentioned earlier that firefighters sometimes do use ventilation to deal with a fire?  Why would that be?  Wouldn't any ventilation just make flames bigger?

Nelson Bryner: It's not a correct statement to say that any ventilation would make the flames bigger.  It's a function of where the ventilation is accomplished and where in the fire it happened.  For example, if you look at the large vertical vent scenario that we did, and that you'll find in volume two of the report, introducing a large vertical vent delayed the progression of the fire from the rear of the Main Showroom to the front of the Main Showroom.  It did not prevent it.  The fire still moved, but it delayed it.

Natalie Caula: Natalie Caula with ABC News 4 in Charleston.  I understand that the renderings took quite some time for the computer simulations.  But I understand there have been some, there have been some delays.  Can you explain the process of why it may have taken this long for the report?

Nelson Bryner: Well, first of all, we wanted to make sure that we were very thorough, accurate, and complete.  Again, each of the--it takes a significant amount of time to get the geometry and the fuel and everything else into the model.  It takes 4 days to run the model, you then need to look at--you need to compare the results of the model to the interview, the photographs, the video, everything you have, and then you go back and rerun the simulation if the fire is showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Initially, we were very interested in the path that went through the rear of the West Showroom.  The assistant chief had arrived on the scene, and he made several trips to the rear of the showroom area, and he didn't find any smoke or any fire at all.  So we were interested in the fire transitioning or moving through those double steel doors at the rear of the West Showroom.  The simulations, we were not able to get the simulations to match that movement of the fire.  We then went back and gathered some additional information, some discussions with store employees, and we gained a better understanding of the geometry of the holding area.  We had not appreciated, and there are floor plans out there, which do not show all the walls on the holding area.  Once we had a better understanding of the whole of the walls around the holding area, we began to appreciate that the smoke from the loading dock could flow into the void space above the drop ceiling, and we could then understand why it took a period of time for the fire to move in the rear of the Main Showroom.  So it's a matter of getting it right, being accurate, and being complete.

Natalie Caula:  Can you tell us a little bit about the lack of--you said that there was some lack of information and some plans that kind of hampered--could you just talk a little bit about that?

Nelson Bryner: The fire destroyed very thoroughly, major portions of this structure.  It was difficult to reconstruct all the geometry the first time we did it.  After we had talked to the store employees, we went back, and in the thousands of photographs that we had taken, we actually found additional evidence of that wall.  We also found evidence of a door in that wall, and that helped us to understand how the fire may have moved from the holding area.

Without the wall, without the partition wall in the holding area, if the fire had flowed through that open roll-up door from the loading dock area, it would have flowed into the rear of the Main Showroom, and anybody in the showroom, early in the fire, would have seen it.  We had no evidence that anybody had found smoke or flame in the rear of the Main Showroom early in the fire.  And so, that was an observation that we needed to match.

I was going to bring--I was going to bring that up as well.  The assistant fire chief, his initial account was that he had walked to the back of the building, opened this door, and flame leaped inside.  And then talking later to members of the Routley family, said they found that there wasn't as significant a moment as it first appeared, and that possibly didn't occur exactly as he said.  Is that what you're saying as well, or--

Nelson Bryner:  The information that we gathered during interviews was that when the double-steel doors at the rear of the West Showroom was unlatched, the door was pulled out of their hand.  Now, initially, you might think, well, what conditions would cause that?  The fire was under-ventilated.  It was trying to find oxygen wherever it could.  It was pulling air from the showrooms as best as it could.  When you unlatched that door, it was able to get additional oxygen to the loading dock area.  The model demonstrates, and there's images in chapter four, which show that the velocity profile would have been going from the West Showroom into the loading dock area.  Again, consistent with the interview data that we had.  Okay?

'Cause of the air sucking out... [inaudible]--

Nelson Bryner:  Early in the fire, the air is moving towards the loading dock area.

When you come out with the final report and make recommendations, what can your agency do to make sure they're implemented?

Nelson Bryner:  We follow up with them, we serve on many of the code commissions and standards committees, so we do followup with them to make sure they get implemented.  If additional research is necessary to support that implementation, then we often do that.  So, there'll  be a significant amount of followup, and with previous studies, we've been very successful in getting codes revised--model codes revised now.

[ Inaudible Remark ]

There's a lot of discussion about sprinklers and the effect they had on the fire.  There's been also a lot of debate over the months about illegal additions that were supposedly built at the, at the store, things that weren't up to code.  If everything had been constructed up to code at the store, how would that have affected the fire?

Nelson Bryner: If it had been constructed to today's model code, okay, and we work within the model code.  Understand that local--state and local jurisdictions get to adopt either all the model code or parts of the model code.  Okay?  So North Carolina can choose to take this piece, Florida can choose to take that piece.  Okay?  We work with the model code.  The model code would have required that the Main Showroom be sprinklered.  The model code now says that areas larger than 12,500 square feet in a mercantile occupancy are required to be sprinklered.  The Main Showroom was in excess of 15,000 square feet.  In the '94 code, that area limitation was 15,000 square feet.  In the current code, high-piled rack storage of flammable merchandise such as furniture, is required to be sprinklered.  So the showroom would have been--I mean--sorry--the warehouse would have been required under high-piled storage to be sprinklered.  The simulations demonstrate that if sprinklers had been on the loading dock, that would have stopped the fire quite quickly.

How about the fire doors, if those had been functioning properly--I'm sorry.

Nelson Bryner: Okay.  The question was about fire doors and if they had been functioning properly.  Again, we did not do a simulation where we did different things with the fire door, so I can't answer that directly.  However, I will direct you to one of our recommendations, which is to conduct some additional research as to the performance of fire doors, and to understand how extended service and more realistic fire conditions actually affect that performance.  So that is one of our recommendations.

Did you do any simulation that--you said the, the sprinklers at the loading would have stopped it.  Did you do any simulation of if they were not the loading dock, but at other places at the store, would have stopped it?

Nelson Bryner: No.  The only place we installed the sprinklers were on the loading dock.

And is that--would that be usual for a company to have sprinklers on a loading dock as opposed to the interior space?

Nelson Bryner: Again, the current code, it depends upon how the local authority with jurisdiction classifies it.  If it was considered to be part of the Main Showroom--there was a connecting opening there--then the main showroom exceeded 12,500 square feet, adding an additional 2,220 feet with the loading dock would have certainly been required sprinklers.  However, one can also establish a separate fire barrier area by addressing the walls and the doors.  So if the doors had been all upgraded to fire-rated doors of a specific time period, and the walls, the metal walls of the warehouse, as well as the rear of the main--of the West Showroom had been upgraded, then that space could have been nonsprinklered.

Quick question.  I know you folks have done the World Trade Center and the night club fire in Rhode Island.  Is this the first time you've done a study, like on a furniture store fire like this?  Is this new territory for you?

Nelson Bryner: Yes.  This--we have not done, to my knowledge, furniture stores.  We've done a number of different venues, but not furniture stores.

And was there anything out of this that seemed more dangerous or--can you kind of quantify?

Nelson Bryner:  Again, it's the large open areas, it's the high fuel load represented by the foam- filled furniture, and it's the lack of sprinklers.

You make recommendations as far as building codes, but there's nothing in here--you haven't addressed the furniture itself and whether it should be manufactured to improve standards.  Is that one of your recommendations to consider for--

Nelson Bryner: Yes, that is one of the recommendations, is to understand the fire spread on upholstered furniture.

But let me modify that just a bit.  It's to study how the fire spread over furniture to help the industry arrive at safer materials.  We are not making a recommendation in this particular study to change the codes of standards regarding the furniture.

I guess the other end of my question, going back to the fact that it's a furniture store, do you think that a furniture store should have even more safeguards than a mercantile establishment?

Nelson Bryner: I think that the fuel load and the open, large open display areas represent a unique fire hazard.  Yes, I do.

Just to clarify.  I know consumer protection has been looking at a new standard for furniture for some time.  It's been debated over the past couple of years, or taken commentary.  You won't be entering that debate at this time?

That's not connected to this study yet.

[ Silence ]

Created November 8, 2010, Updated January 3, 2017