Last Alarm: The Charleston 9

Thomas A. Woodley

Publisher: iUniverse Pages: 250 Price: (paperback) $10.99 ISBN: 9781663243881 Reviewed: January, 2024 Author Website: Visit »

Thomas A. Woodley’s Last Alarm concerns the furniture-store fire which became the deadliest single incident for American firefighters since 9/11.

Now-retired labor lawyer Woodley, onetime chief counsel for the IAFF firefighters’ union, brings impeccable credentials for doing justice to this book’s somber topic. In telling the story of the blaze that engulfed the Sofa Super Store in Charleston, South Carolina on June 18, 2007, Last Alarm draws on court documents, government agency reports, and new interviews with eyewitnesses. Woodley touches on the lawsuits that followed, some of which he was personally involved in as a litigator, but places the greatest emphasis on the nine men who lost their lives and the families and colleagues they left behind.

Woodley clearly explains how the building’s expansive open-plan showroom floor, highly flammable synthetic materials, and lack of sprinklers and other safety measures allowed the fire to spread. Another culprit, though, emerges as the Charleston Fire Department’s longstanding policy of “aggressively” acting to prevent property damage even when no lives were at stake, “immediately running inside [a] building” while “using minimal water.” While avoiding rancor and maintaining the book’s even-tempered tone, Woodley suggests the city’s then-mayor and fire chief tried to combat this conclusion, but ultimately lost out as the fire department adopted safer policies.

Although comparable in subject to bestselling accounts of real-life disasters like The Perfect Storm, this book doesn’t aim at page-turning suspense. The tragedy receives a diligent and minutely detailed accounting, covering both its minute-by-minute unfolding and its long-term aftermath. In fact, Woodley spends as much time on the aftermath as on the terrifying fire itself, meticulously describing the firefighters’ funerals and the several government investigations into what went wrong.

Perhaps limited in general interest, as a result, Woodley’s work should serve as a welcome memorial for anyone with a personal connection to the Sofa Super Store fire, and as a valuable resource for anyone professionally or academically interested in public safety issues.

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