Seven Charleston Fire Department firefighters who died in the F.W. Woolworth department store blaze 60 years ago were remembered Wednesday in ceremonies at the scene of the fire and at Spring Hill Cemetery. The fire, which broke out sometime before 4 a.m. on March 4, 1949, was first detected by Charleston Policeman Wayne Casdorph, who smelled smoke and noticed an eerie, milky color coming from a window of the store while walking his beat along Capitol Street. The patrolman rushed to a nearby alarm box and reported the fire. Two firetrucks and their crews from the old Elizabeth Street Fire Station were initially sent to respond to the blaze.
“The fire was very deceptive in size,” said M.G. Boggess, president of Charleston Firefighters Local 317, during the memorial service held at the 205 Capitol St. site of the blaze. “At first, it was thought to be a small fire that was smoldering under a bunch of rags.”
About one hour after the fire was reported, firefighters inside the smoky, three-story building found flames rising from the rear corner of the department store’s basement.
“Unable to descend to the basement, they advanced out onto the floor through a rear door and sprayed a stream of water back in under the stairway,” wrote Gazette reporter James A. Hill in an eyewitness account of the fire. “Suddenly, without warning, a whole section of the floor all the way across the building gave way plunging seven firemen into roaring flames below.”
Boggess said several of those who died in the blaze were World War II veterans who returned to their hometown to work in the fire department to die in service to their community four years after the war’s end.
Among them was Army veteran George A. Coates, one of two black firefighters who died in the blaze. Coates perished after first pulling one firefighter from the flaming basement and flinging him to safety in an alley, then returning to the building to look for his partner. Coates did not realize his partner had safely exited the building and was in a hospital-bound ambulance.
Coates and fellow black firefighter Richard E. McCormick, who also died fighting the department store blaze, “couldn’t sit at Woolworth’s lunch counter” due to segregation policies in 1949 Charleston, Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Overstreet observed during invocation remarks for Wednesday’s ceremony. “But we know fire and death don’t discriminate,” he said, adding that about 100 U.S. firefighters die in the line of duty each year.
On Wednesday, while decorating the graves of the four Woolworth’s Fire victims buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, members of the firefighters local discovered that McCormick’s grave had no stone marker, while Coates’ had a veterans’ marker, but nothing commemorating his sacrifice as a firefighter.
The firefighters collected funds to buy markers memorializing Coates’ and McCormick’s service to their city and their role in fighting the Woolworth fire, which at that time involved the nation’s largest-ever loss of firefighters’ lives in a single blaze.
The other firefighters who died in the March 4, 1949, fire were James Paul “Jiggs” Little, Emory C. Pauley, Thomas F. Sharp, Fred C. Summers and Frank Miller.
During Wednesday’s ceremony, a bell was rung after each name was read.
Mayor Danny Jones praised the fallen firefighters and expressed his gratitude for the current Charleston Fire Department members. “I’m glad you stand ready to run into buildings when the rest of us are running out of them,” he said.