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A year later, the wounds left by the Bay Street fire remain fresh

David Morrill wasn't sure what was burning across the marsh as he peered out the window of his home in Carriage Court just before 5 a.m. Dec. 19, 2008.

"Something was on fire," said Morrill. "I figured it was either our office, the Best Western (Sea Island Inn) or the Anchorage House."

Morrill's phone call was the first of many that would flood the Beaufort County Dispatch Center that morning. The blaze at 1105 Bay St. would consume the 200-year-old building and destroy the offices inside -- including Morrill's.

A year after the fire, Morrill and the building's other tenants are still tallying their losses. A S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigation into the fire ended in April without determining a possible cause.

On what is now a grassy lot sandwiched between Craven and Bay streets once sat the U-shaped, two-story brick building and the office of attorney Ray Williams.

"I still go by there and I'm hit with a flood of memories," said Williams, who now works out of an office on Congress Street after 35 years at the Bay Street location. "It's a shock that I'll never get over. It was my home away from home. My children grew up going to that office."

Williams was one of four members of the Phoenix Partnership, the corporation that owned the building that housed the Dowling, Dowling, Sanders and Duke law firm in the 1950s.

'A HORRIBLE DAY'

A frantic phone call alerted Williams to the fire at his office, and when he arrived, he couldn't believe his eyes.

Flames shot from the windows and through the roof, and a huge plume of dark smoke hovered above the city as firefighters fought to extinguish the blaze from outside the building. The fire weakened the building's wooden supports, making it unsafe to send firefighters inside."You risk a lot to save a lot and you risk little to save little," said Lt. Dan Byrne, Beaufort Fire Department spokesman. "If there is a life to be saved, we will risk everything and aggressively go into any building we can. If we can save the building or business, we will go inside to fight the fire but a little more cautiously."

More than 12 hours after the first call came in, firefighters were still using an aerial pumper to spray water on the smoldering debris.

"I thought they had it contained three or four times," Williams said. "You'd be smiling one minute thinking it was over and crying the next as another part of the building started back up. It was a horrible day."

Bankruptcy attorney Craig Poff went to work at 7:30 a.m. that morning like any other.

Upon turning onto Bladen Street, Poff quickly realized that this wasn't his normal morning commute.

"No one notified me or anything, so I just went to work," said Poff, who has since moved to an office on Prince Street. "I saw all of the smoke when I pulled onto Bladen Street and then saw the fire. I wanted to go back inside the building, but the firefighters wouldn't let me."

Inside his office, Poff had stashed his children's Christmas gifts. Hours later, the gifts, along with everything else in Poff's office, was gone. It cost him more than $50,000 out of his own pocket to replace everything destroyed in the fire.

CAUSE STILL UNKNOWN

Shortly after the fire, the Beaufort Fire Department turned the investigation over to SLED. The agency is typically called upon by fire departments across the state to investigate suspicious fires.

State investigators found that the fire appeared to burn downwards from the second floor, according to a report authored by the case's investigator, Special Agent Terris Green.

An accelerant-sniffing dog was taken through the debris and gravitated to a spot on the concrete floor in the basement, the report said.

However, a sample of that area and of other pieces of evidence taken from the scene tested negative for traces of flammable or combustible liquids, according to a SLED lab report.

Green labeled the cause of the fire "undetermined" in April and the case has been closed, according to a SLED spokeswoman.

'BLESSINGS FROM A BAD THING'

Had he not backed up his clients' files and documents off-site, David Morrill said his accounting firm, now located on Bladen Street, likely would have gone up with the fire.

"We lost the whole office," Morrill said. "I lost a lot of personal things, diplomas, things like that but thankfully I had been backing up our files off-site. If I hadn't done that, I would have been out of business. I still find myself looking for things and remembering that they were in that office."

The building also was home to attorneys Paul Infinger and Marvin Dukes III, Beaufort historian Larry Rowland and the Sea Island Investigative Agency. None of those tenants could be reached for comment this week.

Byrne said the fire, which he described as the city's largest and most destructive in more than a decade, reinforced many of the fire prevention lessons the department tries to impart annually.

"We really didn't learn anything new, but it reinforced what we know," Byrne said. "Prevention, early notification and quick response are key to providing solid fire protection. We did not get early notification for this fire. When you don't get early notification from an alarm system, we won't get called until the fire can be seen from the street and by then it's often too late."

Williams said there was a silver lining to the fire that claimed his home away from home.

"I thank God every day that no one was injured and that there was no wind that morning that could have spread that fire to other buildings downtown," Williams said earlier this week. "There are blessings that came from a bad thing. Saturday is going to be a tough day. I'm going to be in a blue funk. We miss the building, everyone does."

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