The National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal engineering agency, said the study of the June 18 blaze at the Sofa Super Store will use a computer model to determine why the fire quickly spread, why the building collapsed so fast and whether sprinklers could have saved lives. The study could take more than a year to complete.
Investigators, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have not yet determined the cause of the fire. But officials have said the fire broke out in a loading dock area where workers took cigarette breaks.
A team from the Gaithersburg, Md.-based institute was in Charleston after the fire and returned Monday to interview firefighters.
Bill Grosshandler, the chief of the agency's fire research division, said there are several reasons for the study.
"In this case, one reason is because of the immensity - nine firefighters is almost 10 percent of the annual loss of firefighters" in the nation each year, he said.
"These are people who have experience and they are trained," the chief said. "There was something obviously wrong. We thought it was important to discover more details and see what could be learned about the fire."
Recreating the fire will not be easy, he said.
"The immensity of the task is trying to understand what all was in that building," Chief Grosshandler said.
Details such as when the firefighters broke windows will affect the model, the chief said.
Investigators also will study whether some of the firefighters might have survived had there been sprinklers in the store.
The institute did a similar study of the 2003 fire at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island and concluded sprinklers would have saved lives.
"This particular decision to have a technical study done is something that we don't do all that often," said Gail Porter, an institute spokeswoman.
For instance, the agency did not study a warehouse blaze in Worcester, Mass., that killed six firefighters eight years ago. Chief Grosshandler said it seemed clear from the initial investigation that the fallen firefighters became lost in the smoke-filled warehouse.
The results of the Charleston study could lead to improvements in building construction and revisions to building codes.
After a three-year study of the World Trade Center collapse, the agency recommended that cities raise fire standards for skyscrapers and develop new materials that can better protect tall buildings from fire.