Irmo firefighter killed in massive Columbia apartment fire

Posted 5/27/23

An Irmo firefighter has died in the line of duty.

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Irmo firefighter killed in massive Columbia apartment fire


An Irmo firefighter has died in the line of duty.

James Michael Muller, 25, was killed responding to what officials are calling a massive multi-alarm fire at the Tropical Ridge apartment complex in Columbia, which crews responded to at about 4:15 p.m. May 26. 

According to the Columbia-Richland Fire Department, five firefighters from that department were taken to the hospital for injuries. The Irmo Fire District confirmed that three of its personnel were taken to the hospital for treatment, with the other two having been released.

Irmo Fire Chief Mike Sonefeld said in a statement that Muller’s death was the result of “a structural collapse during fire suppression efforts” at the scene, with Columbia fire sharing confirmation from the Richland County Coroner’s Office that Muller died due to injuries suffered in the fire.

The cause of the blaze has not been determined, and Columbia Fire notes that Columbia Police, the state Law Enforcement Division, and S.C. State Fire are investigating. The building suffered heavy damage, with 19 people having been displaced as a result.

Fire protection services from multiple fire departments were performing interior suppression activities when this tragedy occurred,” Sonefeld said in his statement about Muller’s death. “Irmo was assigned to this call as an automatic aid response. More details of the fire will be forthcoming when appropriate.”

The Columbia and Irmo fire departments have long had an automatic aid agreement to facilitate quick responses to areas on both sides of the Lexington-Richland county line, which Irmo straddles.

The Tropical Ridge apartment complex is located at 167 Stonebridge Dr., off Greystone Boulevard between Interstate 126 and Broad River Road.

“Crews from both departments initially responded to the property shortly before 4:15 p.m.,” Columbia Fire posted to Facebook, adding that the size and progress of the fire led officers on scene to call for more units.

According to Irmo Fire, Muller had been with the district for seven years.

He was a highly respected firefighter that had a love and passion for the job,” Sonefeld said in his statement. “Firefighter Muller will be greatly missed amongst his firefighting family. Chief Sonefeld and the Fire District appreciate the outpouring of your thoughts and prayers during this tragic and difficult time.”

Multiple local fire and law enforcement agencies expressed their condolences following Muller’s death, and a graphic featuring the Irmo Fire seal in black with a thin red line across it has been posted by many across social media to show support.

The Irmo Police Department posted to Facebook, “Our agencies work side by side on a daily basis and this unimaginable tragedy has shaken us all to the core.”

Irmo Mayor Barry Walker issued a statement saying that he has ordered flags at all town facilities to be lowered to half-mast for the next seven days and that the town will hold a memorial service to pay tribute to Muller, with those details to be posted in the near future.

"Firefighter J. Michael Muller exemplified the spirit of selflessness and bravery that defines our firefighting community," Walker said in his statement. "He fearlessly put himself in harm's way to protect the lives and property of others, demonstrating unwavering dedication to his duty as a firefighter. We are forever indebted to him for his service and sacrifice.

"As a respected member of the Irmo Fire Department, Firefighter J. Michael Muller played a pivotal role in safeguarding our community from the perils of fire and other emergencies. His commitment to public safety was unparalleled, and his actions will be remembered as a testament to his heroism and unwavering dedication to duty."

Irmo Fire posted that a makeshift memorial has been started at the district's headquarters station at 6017 Saint Andrews Rd., to which the public are welcome to contribute.

The Irmo Fire Foundation is accepting donations on behalf of the Muller family, with an online option to contribute. Checks can be made out to the Irmo Fire Foundation and mailed to Irmo Fire headquarters with the memo "In Memory of James Muller."

"At this time we are not supporting or affiliated with any other fundraising efforts," the district noted.

Lexington County, which also works with Irmo Fire when the occasion requires,  posted, "We are reaching out our hands to our brothers and sisters at Irmo Fire District as they mourn the loss of one of their own James Michael Muller. A brave firefighter, a fierce friend, and a loving father, husband, son, and brother."

Columbia Fire posted, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to our partners at Irmo Fire District and our many dedicated firefighters following this tragic day.”

S.C. State Fire also offered thoughts and prayers.

Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann issued a statement praising the courage of Muller and the other firefighters who were injured responding to the blaze.

“This tragedy breaks the heart of everyone in the Midlands," he said. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones of the hero, James Michael Muller. It takes a special type of courage to voluntarily run into a burning building to save lives. "

The West Columbia Fire Department posted that it was standing by the night of May 26 to help as the Irmo and Columbia departments dealt with the situation.

"We are one family!" West Columbia Fire emphasized.

In a Facebook post expressing gratitude for the outpouring of support, the district noted that its personnel are not on duty this weekend.

"Our fire service partners across the state of South Carolina are providing fire apparatus and crews to cover Irmo so that we can grieve our loss and support Firefighter Muller's family,"  the district posted.

Soda City Training, which provides fire and first aid instruction, posted, noting that Muller was one of the company’s instructors.

“It is with teary eyes and a heavy heart we announce the Line Of Duty Death of our brother, our friend, one of our instructors, but most importantly, one of the most caring husband, father, and fireman,” the company posted. “HE WAS ONE OF THE BEST.”

This is a developing story and will continue to be updated.

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