If structure was rebuilt today, codes would require sprinkler system

As a furniture store, Super Sofa Store's building served its purpose.

But from a safety standpoint, the 42,000-square-foot space teemed with potential fire hazards, including the building's steel truss structure and the mass of quick-burning furniture it contained.

Kim Benke, widow of Capt. Mike Benke, one of the nine Charleston firefighters killed Monday while battling the blaze, said that every time they drove past the building, "he said it was a nightmare."

The building, which is at least 50 years old, didn't have a sprinkler system. City boards also granted the company exceptions to having firewalls in a connected warehouse.

The Savannah Highway property has morphed from one commercial use to another.

In 1967, the building nearly doubled in size in a remodeling to house an 18,000-square-foot Piggly Wiggly grocery store.

The store had closed by the early 1990s, and local businessman Herb Goldstein bought it to open his first Super Sofa Store about 16 years ago. He has since expanded to North Charleston and Mount Pleasant.

Goldstein remodeled in 1996, adding a 17,000-square-foot warehouse behind the showroom. There, he kept shelves of boxed and bagged furniture stacked five shelves high.

The addition left some space between the buildings for a loading dock area, where employees could load furniture into trucks for delivery. The fire is believed to have started outside in some trash in this area, Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin told The Post and Courier.

During the expansion's planning phase, the company got special permission, in the form of a variance, from city planning board members to build the warehouse without placing a firewall between the two main buildings.

A firewall is built with fire-resistant materials, preventing fire from spreading as quickly throughout a building.

It's unclear, however, whether a firewall would have slowed Monday's blaze. Laura Cabiness, Charleston's Public Service Department director, said her staff has looked closely at the variance application since the fire.

Board members reasoned that the showroom's back wall and the roll-up door that led to the warehouse were already fire-resistant, she said.

The building also lacked a sprinkler system, a network of pipes laid throughout the building that release water during a fire. Such systems weren't required at the time.

The systems ease a fire's severity and can greatly reduce the risk of fire fatalities.

Of the 22 firefighter deaths that occurred nationally in 2006, all perished in buildings without sprinkler systems, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

If the building were rebuilt today, building codes would require a sprinkler system.

City officials follow the 2003 International Building Code, which requires that buildings of at least 12,000 square feet or an occupancy of more than 300 people have sprinkler systems.