Wednesday’s massive fire that destroyed a Safeway store in west Phoenix was reminiscent of another grocery store fire years ago that killed Phoenix firefighter Bret Tarver.
[RELATED: Huge fire erupts at Safeway in west Phoenix]
It was the evening of Wednesday, March 14, 2001. The initial call was about a debris fire behind a hardware store at 35th Avenue and McDowell Road, about 6 miles south of Wednesday’s fire.
Firefighters cleared nearby businesses, including the Southwest Supermarket. At first, there was only light smoke in the store but as they moved through the building, firefighters encountered “heavy smoke and moderate heat in the storage area,” according to a report on Tarver’s death posted on the U.S. Fire Administration’s web page.
The crews backed out to lay a hoseline from the front of the store and spray the flames.
“Visibility in the storage area was near zero and the ability to see in the supermarket deteriorated quickly,” according to the USFA.
At one point, the roof of the store collapsed; that also happened at the Safeway.
Tarver told his captain he was low on air. His captain told him and another firefighter to follow that hoseline out of the building.
“As the two Engine 14 firefighters, including Firefighter Tarver, turned to leave, they became disoriented and ran into a wall,” according to USFA. “They got back up, turned in the direction that they thought was the correct way to go, and ran into another wall. Somehow both firefighters ended up in the rear portion of the main supermarket space.”
The firefighter who was with Tarver made it out. Tarver did not. His captain and two firefighters went into the store after him.
“He was lost, out of air, standing on his feet, and calling for help,” according to USFA. “The captain brought Firefighter Tarver down to the hose line and instructed him to follow it to the exterior. Firefighter Tarver had become incapacitated by the smoke and did not obey the instructions of the captain. Firefighter Tarver crawled a short distance, then stood up, turned, and disappeared in the smoke.”
The fire got worse, making further rescue efforts extremely difficult. But they tried.
In the end, Tarver, who had been trapped in a meat-packing room and ran out of oxygen, died of “thermal burns and smoke inhalation.”
Investigators determined the fire that killed Tarver was arson, but the case went unsolved for years until an anonymous tip in 2007 gave them a name.
According to police and prosecutors, Christopher Benitez, a teenager in 2001, allegedly had been caught stealing beer from the Southwest Supermarket just days before the fire. They believe Benitez set fire to some cardboard boxes outside the store in retaliation.
By the time investigators learned about Benitez, he was serving at Fort Hood in Texas.
Police finally arrested Benitez in July 2009. He was sent home from duty in Iraq -- extradited to Phoenix -- after an arrest warrant was issued for him.
In June 2011, Benitez, who was 27 by then and had been convicted of negligent homicide and arson, was sentenced to prison.
[FROM THE ARCHIVES: Arsonist sentenced in death of PFD firefighter (June 3, 2011)]
A judge gave him four years for negligent homicide, seven years on one arson count and four years on another count of arson.
He served those sentences concurrently and was released two years ago on July 16, 2016.
Tarver, a career firefighter, was 40 years old when he died. He had been a firefighter for eight years.