More of the nine firefighters killed in a furniture store inferno were laid to rest Saturday as a top federal investigator confirmed that the blaze started on the store’s loading dock.
Hundreds of people prayed and sang as members of a church choir clapped tambourines at a service for firefighter James “Earl” Drayton.
“Since late Monday night there has been the most extraordinary outpouring of love,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley told the congregation. “It makes us able to face the future when we have these sad and heartbreaking times.”
The head of the investigation team from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the ignition point of the fire had been pinpointed as the loading dock of the Sofa Super Store, which burned Monday night.
The area housed a trash bin and was used to store old furniture that was to be thrown away. It also was frequented by employees on their cigarette breaks, one store worker has told The Associated Press.
Investigators have refused to discuss possible causes of the fire, and would only say Saturday where it started. They would not comment on whether a cigarette may have started the blaze.
The investigation “will be systematic, deliberate and tenacious and it will take time,” said Ken Chisholm, special agent in charge of the ATF’s national response team for the region.
He would not say where on the loading dock the fire may have started. Investigators have completed their probe at the scene but will continue examining evidence, Chisholm said.
Store worker Sylvester Washington said the trash bin, used for cardboard boxes and plastic wrapping, was about half-full when he left work some 30 minutes before the fire was first reported. Nearby, a couch, a love seat, a sofa sleeper and a broken recliner sat on a loading ramp, he said.
Washington said employees were warned against flicking cigarettes into the trash. “That’s grounds for dismissal,” he told the AP on Thursday.
Fire may have started in trash
Assistant Fire Chief Larry Garvin, who had decided the structure was safe for firefighters to enter, said Wednesday that he believed the fire started in trash on the dock area and may have spread into the store’s drop ceiling before the firefighters went inside.
Killed in the fire, which caused the single heaviest loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11 attacks, were: Capt. William “Billy” Hutchinson, 48; Capt. Mike Benke, 49; Capt. Louis Mulkey, 34; Mark Kelsey, 40; Bradford “Brad” Baity, 37; Michael French, 27; Drayton, 56; Brandon Thompson, 27; and Melvin Champaign, 46.
At Benke’s funeral Saturday, Fire Chief Rusty Thomas recounted a conversation with his own son earlier in the week about why God took the men. “He’s got nine, so now he’s got a baseball team. He’s got an all-star team,” Thomas told the crowd of about 300 mourners.
On Friday, a joint memorial service drew thousands to this seaside city to honor the men. Funerals for five of them were held later Friday.