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Charleston firemen remember Woolworth tragedy

It was March 4, 1949, when the alarm went out and Charleston firemen rolled up on the scene of a massive inferno on the corner of Quarrier and Capitol Streets. The Woolworth Department Store was on fire.

Tragically the first floor of the building collapsed into the basement and cost seven firemen their lives. It was the biggest casualty count for a fire department on a blaze in the United States at the time. Today it remains the most tragic event for the Charleston Fire Department.

“Men were up to their armpits in burning debris and store stock in the basement,” according to an account of the fire read at Monday’s memorial ceremony.

Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Bob Sharp’s great uncle was among those killed.

“Such a tragedy because of the amount of people,” said Sharp. “Seven people who died were firefighters. Then there were many others injured and there were people who were saved. It was just an iconic event in the Charleston Fire Department.”

Bob Adams was a student at Glenwood Elementary and remembered his parents hearing the news on the radio.

“I woke up the morning the fire was going and was getting ready to go to school. My mom and dad told me there was a big fire downtown at Woolworth’s,” he said. “I’d been to Woolworth’s many times as a kid. We used to get a hot dog in the basement and then I’d go to the toy department and pick out a toy.

“To me at that age it seemed very tragic because of the number of lives lost,” he said. “I’d never experienced anything like that and it made a big impression on me.”

The names of the seven firemen killed were memorialized on a bronze marker that still hangs on the building that now stands at the exact location where they died. Charleston firemen stood by as the names were read aloud followed by a bell peal on Monday to remember their sacrifices.

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