Charleston Honors 75th Anniversary of Woolworth Fire

This past Monday, our city remembered seven lost firefighters who died while attempting to put out the Woolworth fire that ignited on Capitol Street in downtown Charleston on March 4, now 75 years ago in 1949. Below this post and underneath it, you can view some pictures we took from our office.

How the Firefighters Died

Two sets of firefighters were involved in the Woolworth fire. Some were dispatched to the Woolworth Five and Dime retail outlet’s basement, while the others remained on the first floor.

It wasn’t long after the firefighters positioned on the first level started using their hoses to extinguish the fire that the flooring beneath them gave way. This caused them to fall to the lower story, along with merchandise, store fixtures like shelving, and waterlogged building materials, presumably atop their colleagues down below.

What may have transpired once the first floor and basement joined as one is unclear. All of the firefighters who lost their lives in the blaze that fateful day are believed to have died of smoke inhalation, burns, or drowning. Many of those who perished died trying to rescue their fellow firemen. At least 12 other firefighters suffered injuries while battling the Woolworth fire or trying to rescue their colleagues.

This Year’s Remembrance Ceremony

One captain currently with the Charleston Fire Department shared that he and his colleagues have never forgotten about his “seven brothers” who were lost in the fire.

His comments in front of several dozen attendees who had come together for the ceremony were followed by a moment of silence, and then two bagpipers began playing “Going Home.”

Another fire captain then stepped forward and rang a bell for each firefighter lost that day, followed by 15 additional times in three segments of five, the method telegraphers once used to mark the passing of firemen.

The bagpipers returned once more and began playing “Amazing Grace” as they moved toward an oversized American flag that had been affixed to the ladders of our fire department’s big red trucks before being hoisted above Capitol Street.

The Legacy of Pain and Suffering Left Behind by the Blaze

Fortunately, given how the Woolworth store fire was an early-morning one, no employees or customers were in the building when the fire ignited. The Ward 3 Council Member who attended the ceremony commented on the fact that so many firefighters died because they were simply trying to protect the building and the goods inside, an act which has been instrumental in shaping our city’s policies for handling similar fires. He said that having firefighters put their lives on the line to save just a building and its contents would never happen today.

The generational trauma left behind because of the fire that occurred so many years ago is ever-present.

For example, one woman who attended the ceremony noted that she was only three weeks old when her firefighter dad died in the blaze but that her sister, who joined her, was eight. She shared how both she and her sister often wondered how their lives might have been different had it not been for their father’s premature passing.

In another instance, another attendee, who was the son of a firefighter, spoke of his dad and the mental trauma he endured after the blaze. He said that his father’s life was spared that fateful day because he had temporarily vacated the retail store to secure a tool. He shared that his dad forever endured nightmares after the fire, which perhaps shaped how he parented his son. The silver lining is that what the dad had been through ultimately led the son to become a firefighter himself.

Why the Woolworth Fire in Charleston Is So Memorable

In addition to the extreme loss of life of our city’s brave firefighters in this fire 75 years ago, the monetary losses it caused were significant. This is especially true given how the Woolworth fire also significantly damaged Kresge’s 5-and 10-cent store next door. All in all, the 1949 fire left behind $1 million in damages, an amount equating nearly $13 million in today’s economy.

No other fire in our city’s history had been quite as catastrophic as the one at the retailer in 1949 up until just over a decade ago when a home on Arlington Avenue was set ablaze. That fire was devastating in its own right, as it claimed the lives of eight Charleston residents, six of whom were children. Fires can undeniably lead to catastrophic injuries and can often be prevented.

Extending Our Gratitude to Charleston and Kanawha County Fire Crews

Each day, fortunately, doesn’t bring forth fires as devastating as the commercial one that occurred at Woolworth Five and Dime in 1949 or the residential one that occurred in 2012. Nonetheless, our city and county fire crews maintain a rigorous training schedule so that they’ll be adequately prepared to keep you and your loved ones from suffering injuries or loss of life. We send our gratitude to the brave men and women who put their own safety and lives on the line each time they show up to put out a fire that has ignited.