Fire destroys seven buildings, damages another in historic district of downtown Georgetown

troot@thesunnews.comSeptember 25, 2013 

— A fire destroyed seven buildings along Georgetown’s historic Front Street early Wednesday, displacing businesses and residents in the heart of the city’s waterfront business district.

The first call came in to 911 at 5:23 a.m. saying there was a fire in the 700 block of Front Street. The first crews arrived at 5:27 a.m. and saw heavy fire on the back side of the buildings next to the Harborwalk, Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner said. Two people were trapped inside and multiple people were coming out of the apartments above the businesses.

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Everyone got out safely, and no residents were injured. The cause of the fire is not yet known. Two explosions occurred. It could be days before a cause is determined, Tanner said.

“We will go building by building, inch by inch because we need to make sure we find the cause of this fire,” he said.

“We have no idea what caused the fire at this time. The fire went from building to building. It came from the Harborwalk side, went up into the attic and from building to building.”

None of the old buildings had sprinkler systems, Tanner said. Another building, the S.C. Maritime Museum, has sprinklers and was spared from the blaze, but suffered smoke and water damage.

The fire continued to smolder in mid-afternoon. Front Street will remain closed until an engineer can say that the buildings aren’t at risk of falling. An engineer and architect were looking at the buildings Wednesday afternoon.

More than a half dozen buildings are a total loss, Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said. More than 100 firefighters have battled the blaze, and support agencies including the Red Cross and Salvation Army are on scene to help.

Businesses that were destroyed or damaged include Colonial Florist, Harborwalk Books, Zest, Goudelock & Co., Doodlebug, Boardwalk Market, Buzz’s Roost and Limpin’ Jane’s Restaurant, officials said.

Fire crews had issues with the water pressure, causing tankers to have to shuttle water from the Carroll Campbell Marina Complex, said Sam Hodge, Georgetown County’s emergency director.

Some residents in the Georgetown area have said their water is discolored, which Georgetown County spokeswoman Jackie Broach said is likely as a result of the firefighting and not a water quality issue and should be resolved by Wednesday afternoon. She said the water is safe to drink but residents shouldn’t wash clothes until the water is no longer discolored.

Hodge said the water tank is depleted and water is still being brought in from the Campbell complex.

"This fire occurred at our peak demand period. 6 o'clock everyone gets up, showers, starts making breakfast... coinciding with this very large fire it put a very large stress to our system,” said Jonathan Heald, director of Georgetown's public services department.

Two upcoming events will go on as planned: the Bridge 2 Bridge Run and the Wooden Boat Show.

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No schools are closed because of the fire, though students at Maryville Elementary School on Poplar Street and Howard Adult Center on South Kaminiski Street are being kept inside because of the smoke that was in the air, said Ray White, public information officer for the Georgetown County School District.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said there are no issues with air quality, but the agency is on scene to monitor the water run off.

ATF and SLED are investigating but Tanner said that doesn’t mean the cause is suspicious at this time.

Scoville said at least 100 people could be affected factoring in job loss. That doesn't include people in the buildings across the street which weren't burned but are closed. "It's devastating, there's no question about that."

Kathy McWilliams, who lives in an apartment above Buzz’s Roost, said she saw the fire early Wednesday on the Harborwalk and tried to help put it out.

“I saw it burning from my window,” she said. “We started taking as much water as we could until the cops told us to leave.

“Those umbrellas caught on fire and that was it. There was nothing else we could do. We tried everything we could. We tried everything. It’s a nightmare.”

Scoville said the fire appeared to have started in the back of Limpin’ Jane’s Restaurant, although that has not been officially established.

Business owners and residents are gathered still trying to process what has happened.

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Susan Beckman, who lives at 122 Broad St. near the fire, was woken up about 5:30 a.m. by her daughter, Emily, 9.

“There were lights bouncing in my room because I had the shade open,” Emily said. “I looked out my window and I saw smoke coming from that building and I was like, ‘Mom and Dad, wake up, wake up!”

Susan Beckman said she called Piggly Wiggly seeking food and drinks to offer fire crews, residents and business owners. More than 20 folks were gathered in her yard Wednesday morning.

“I love this town so much and I love Front Street,” she said. “It was the least I could do.”

About 100 fire and support crews from nearly a dozen agencies have helped battle the fire or offer support, Hodge said.

The U.S. Coast Guard pumped water from the harbor onto the businesses.

Limpin’ Jane’s Old South Eatery owner Bryan Shepler, who lives above his business, said when his business alarm went off at 5 a.m. he first assumed it was a break-in, but when he stepped on the floor, he knew it was something else.

“Flames were shooting over the Harborwalk and the floor was so hot,” he said. “I grabbed my guitar, that was all I could think about.”

Shepler ran outside the business he’s run for about three years. “It kept spreading down the block,” he said. “Where do I even start now? I haven’t thought about it.”

The flames ran through Buzz’s Roost, Doodlebugs, the flower shop and bookstore and ended at the Maritime Museum, Shepler said. Six other families that live above their businesses also lost everything.

“We had just finished decorating everything,” McWilliams said. “We lost everything, and I just moved here two months ago.”

At 8 a.m., flames and billowing smoke filled the sky as dozens of residents gathered in back parking lots off Front Street, many of them crying.

The Coastal S.C. Chapter of the American Red Cross has its Georgetown office open, which is downtown on Screven Street, said Executive Director Nanci Conley. The group is providing breakfast, lunch and snacks for those affected by the fire and for those working at the scene, and mental health counselors and client counselors also are available.

“We will stay on the scene until all the needs are met,” said Conley, adding that those wishing to help can make financial donations to the Red Cross. “Financial donations allow us to move things quickly and to meet the needs of each individual.”

Sally Swineford, a member of the board of directors for the S.C. Maritime Museum, 729 Front St., saluted all the emergency responders who helped remove so many artifacts, model boats and goods from the building.

The museum opened in December 2011.

Speaking at 2 p.m., as firefighters continued pouring water on sites nearby, Swineford said the building "looks OK from the outside," but that museum personnel will wait for clearance to return inside "to assess the damage."

When they regain access, "We'll move as quickly as we can," said Swineford, whose restaurant, The River Room, 801 Front St., bore no damage from the blaze.

She also was grateful that the original painting promoting the 2013 Wooden Boat Show also was taken out today from the museum for safekeeping.

"We're all aboard for the Wooden Boat Show," she said of that downtown event coming up Oct. 19, and the "Bridge 2 Bridge Run" remains on track for Oct. 12.

George Fogel, who owns a sailboat that was docked at the harborwalk, said his vessel was one of seven boats docked there that Ronny Campbell with Towboat USA came and towed.

Fogel had not seen his boat since the fire, but he said he was told the front sail had some damage and that was about it.

He also praised Campbell.

"He was one of the heroes down here today," Fogel said. "When I got down there, I couldn't see anything, and to hear my boat is OK means I am a lucky guy."

Reporters Amanda Kelley, Steve Jones, Vicki Grooms, Steve Palisin and Zane Wilson contributed to this report.

For continuing coverage, more photos, and videoscheck with The Sun News. The (Charleston) Post & Courier has also posted several photos, including some posted to social media. Click here for their coverage.

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