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Owner of Hilton Head’s Smokehouse moved by community support as fire is investigated

Here’s a look at the damage a fire caused at The Smokehouse restaurant on Hilton Head

A fire was reported at The Smokehouse restaurant on Hilton Head Island around 6 a.m. on Sunday, June 9, 2019. Here's what we know.
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A fire was reported at The Smokehouse restaurant on Hilton Head Island around 6 a.m. on Sunday, June 9, 2019. Here's what we know.

Smokehouse restaurant owner Jerry Leonard said he was deep in sleep Sunday morning when his girlfriend, Morgan O’Banion came “crashing” through his bedroom door to change his life forever — his Hilton Head restaurant was on fire.

The 6 a.m. fire destroyed The Smokehouse restaurant on Palmetto Bay Road on Hilton Head’s south end, Leonard said. Fire officials said it likely started around an electrical panel toward the back of the restaurant and spread to the attic. It took firefighters nearly five hours to get the fire under control.

As of Monday morning, no cause had been officially determined by fire officials.

Leonard said the restaurant won’t be reopening soon.

“I’m still waiting on an assessor,” he said. “But I would consider the building a total loss.”

The fire caused the restaurant’s ceiling to collapse inward on the dining room, and fire crews had to break a hole in the roof to access the network of wooden supports that were feeding the blaze, Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue Chief Brad Tadlock said.

“The challenge with the fire fight was (because) the building has been different restaurants over the years with remodels,” he said. “Once it gets into the attic, it can spread into areas we cannot see.”

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Hilton Head Fire Rescue arrives on the scene of a fire at the Smokehouse restaurant on Hilton Head Island early Sunday, June 9, 2019. Joe Theys Submitted

Storms on Saturday night could have contributed to the fire, officials said Sunday.

“We don’t know if it was the equipment,” Joheida Fister of Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue said at the time. “We are running lightning data for the area to see if there were any strikes in that general vicinity.”

On Monday, officials had received lightning information from Weather Sentry, a business that tracks weather data for the town, and were plotting coordinates of the strikes on a map to determine if there had been any nearby strikes, Fister said.

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Hilton Head firefighters survey damage at The Smokehouse restaurant on Palmetto Bay Road after a fire on Sunday, June 9, 2019. Dave Peck Special to The Island Packet

Leonard posted news about the fire on Facebook and added that he’s trying to connect his 60 staff members with jobs at other nearby restaurants. He said he was surprised by the amount of support.

“I probably get 10 texts on my birthday,” Leonard said. “Yesterday, I probably got 100 people expressing their sorrow and willingness to help ... whether it’s Old Oyster Factory offering their freezer space or support from other restaurants.”

Smokehouse has been at the Palmetto Bay Road location since 2010, when it moved from a location on Pope Avenue near Coligny Circle, according to previous reports from The Island Packet.

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A Hilton Head firefighter surveys damage at The Smokehouse restaurant on Palmetto Bay Road after a fire on Sunday, June 9, 2019. Dave Peck Special to The Island Packet

Restaurant fires on Hilton Head Island

The Smokehouse fire is being likened to the fire that destroyed The Crazy Crab at Jarvis Creek in March 2018 in the way it spread to the building’s attic.

Although that fire was related to cooking, it took several hours to extinguish and caused smoke damage throughout the restaurant.

The electrical issues are similar to those experienced at the north-end Starbucks that burned in January 2018, Tadlock said.

“A big part of it is that our buildings are older, a lot of them go through renovations and additions,” Tadlock said of fires with similar causes on the island.

Leonard said the Smokehouse building started as a warehouse in the early 1970s and had been several different restaurants before Smokehouse moved in.

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The damage to the back side of The Smokehouse restaurant on Palmetto Bay Road after a fire on Sunday, June 9, 2019. Dave Peck Special to The Island Packet

He said he had renewed appreciation for fire rescue after he watched crews fight the fire from 6 a.m. until the early afternoon.

“We’ve all seen fires,” he said. “But when you see guys in heavy fire equipment going into your building, it changes the whole thing. They’re willing to die for you and your property.”

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.

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