Townhouse fire displaces 14 families on Hilton Head Island

rlurye@islandpacket.comDecember 19, 2013 

A fire Wednesday night displaced 14 families and damaged an 18-unit building at Wyndemere Villas on Hilton Head Island, according to a fire official.

The Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division was called at about 8:30 p.m. to 50 Yacht Cove Drive, where flames had spread to four units, according to Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas. Witnesses told firefighters the blaze appeared to start outside, but an investigation continues.

The fire moved quickly through empty spaces in floors and walls, making it difficult to extinguish, Lucas said. The building has a sprinkler system, but it wasn't able to keep up with the spreading flames, he said.

The fire was under control by 9:20 p.m. Wednesday, but some areas were still smoldering shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday, according to Lucas.

"It's a tremendous amount of having to cut holes and tear into floor and ceiling to find all those pockets," Lucas said.

The complex of townhouses and condominiums must consult its insurance agency before a damage estimate is available. A structural engineer may have to determine whether the building is safe to occupy. Six units Thursday were too damaged for firefighters to enter, Lucas said.

"Who's to say whether we start tearing this down, the rest wouldn't fall in like an Erector Set," Lucas said of the destroyed units.

Five families were provided lodging at a nearby hotel by the American Red Cross, Lucas said, and nine families made arrangements on their own. The remaining families were out of town, he said.

On Thursday morning, a short blonde woman still wearing her pink pajamas and slippers stood behind the yellow caution tape strung around her building. She swaddled her cat in a white towel.

"She was my main concern," said Liz Storey, 61, who was provided housing by the Red Cross. "I was so scared."

Storey and her boyfriend were just sitting down to dinner about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday when they heard someone banging on their door, yelling there was a fire. Looking outside, they could see their neighbor's balcony engulfed in flames, Storey said.

She grabbed her purse and tabby, Gracie, but firefighters at the door startled the cat, who ran inside and hid. Storey tried to catch Gracie, but she was prevented from entering.

The next morning, a firefighter found the 10-year-old cat sandwiched between a fallen screen and debris, soaking wet but uninjured.

"Everything else can be replaced. I just wanted my baby," Storey said, nuzzling the cat with her cheek. "I guess she used up one of her lives.

Video: Fire damages residential building on Hilton Head Island (1:38)

Hilton Head Island firefighters responded to a fire at the Wyndemere Villas at around 8:45 p.m. Dec. 18, 2013, on Hilton Head Island. Six of the twenty units in the building have been deemed unsafe according to Hilton Head Island Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas. Delayna Earley

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