Security no easy task for Port of Port Royal, but agency says it's up to the job

The agency that oversees the Port of Port Royal says it is not alarmed about security, despite a suspicious fire earlier this month inside an abandoned building on the port property.

"We are comfortable with local law enforcement's ability to police the area," said Byron Miller, S.C. Ports Authority spokesman. "Vandalism like this is not a good thing, and we intend to prosecute anyone who is caught."

The port's main entrance at the end of Paris Avenue in Port Royal is protected by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and a padlocked gate. Many of the 316-acre property's large warehouses are behind that fence.

The Beaufort Fire Department and Port Royal Police Department are still investigating a suspicious but minor fire set the night of Oct. 2 inside one of the abandoned warehouses. Firefighters extinguished the fire in less than a minute.

Port Royal town manager Van Willis said protecting the port, which was ordered to be closed and sold by the General Assembly in 2004, is a tall task because of its size.

"It's surrounded by a chain-link fence, but there's portions of the property that aren't behind the fence," Willis said. "Nobody is down there, so it's hard for us to find out what's going on until after the fact.

"If the state wants it better protected, they can call on us to do extra patrols, but we'd need access to the property on a more regular basis."

Port Royal police regularly patrol the streets near the port, said Capt. Alan Beach, department spokesman.

"We patrol it as much as possible," Beach said. "It is somewhat secure, but nothing is ever 100 percent secure."

Though the fire was minor in terms of size and damage caused, the large, empty buildings are somewhat of a fire hazard, said Lt. Dan Byrne, spokesman for the Beaufort Fire Department, which responds to fire and medical calls in Port Royal.

"The nine firefighters that were killed in Charleston in 2007 were killed in a lightweight, steel warehouse, and most of the buildings at the port are lightweight, steel-truss warehouses that fail very quickly," Byrne said. "Unless we have a reason to believe there is a life risk inside the building, we will be fighting the fire from a defensive standpoint."