Beaufort News

SLED report: Port Royal seafood market fire was not arson but cause is undetermined

After initial suspicions of foul play, arson was ruled out and a cause undetermined in the July fire that burned the Port Royal seafood market undetermined, according to a final report from the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.



The fire was initially deemed suspicious after what appeared to be a pry bar was found on the front porch along with possible signs of forced entry, according to the report obtained Wednesday by The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet after an open records request. The gas cap of a car that burned in front of the market was on the ground and the cover flipped open.



Those things led to investigators from SLED and the S.C. Ports Authority, which owns the property, being called in.



But the SLED investigator and a dog trained to sniff for accelerants found no signs of arson. 



The final report said the blaze most likely started in the back of the market near a breaker box, possibly due to an electrical malfunction.



James Kernodle, who helps manage the market, dropped off half a bushel of crabs in the cooler and grabbed some business cards from the counter inside at about 9:30 p.m. the night before the fire, he told investigators. Market manager Joey Morris had left earlier in the day. No one saw or smelled anything out of place before the fire call early Sunday morning.



Firefighters arrived at the end of 11th Street before 6 a.m. on July 19 to a market in flames, video from fire engine dashboard cameras and a firefighter's helmet camera shows. An adjacent warehouse also began burning as fire spread through the roof.



Attention quickly turned to Dockside, the iconic restaurant that had operated on Battery Creek more than two decades.



A main stream of water was trained on the fire from the front of the market and a hose eventually brought to the back of the market to contain the fire to the market and warehouse.



"This ain't going nowhere, that's burnt," a firefighter can be heard on video saying of the market side as the hose arrived in the back of the buildings. "But I'm more worried about that stuff on the other side."



The firefighter with the helmet camera could be seen shining his light in the business's back windows and the dining area to check for signs of the fire spreading.



He checked the space between the restaurant and warehouse.



"It doesn't look like we have extension down this side yet," he said. "The restaurant still looks (OK)."



In the end, a Port Royal Police Department report estimated the damage to the market and warehouse at a total of about $80,000. The report estimated Dockside's damage at $5,000 due to smoke and water damage.



The restaurant closed anyway. Owner Tom Oliva said he was unable to sign a longterm lease with the S.C. Ports Authority while the port property is being sold and was wary of investing money in the building.



A group is currently trying to buy the 317-acre Port of Port Royal from the Ports Authority, with closing required before the end of the year.







Rebuilding the market



The town wants the seafood market rebuilt and doesn't believe the construction should be contingent on what happens with the sale of the property, town manager Van Willis said Thursday.



"Whether that's the case, we'll have to see," said Willis, who plans to meet with the Ports Authority about the building.



The market and adjacent warehouse were demolished earlier this month, leaving only Dockside along the town-operated shrimp docks. The Ports Authority allowed the town to use a nearby building for administrative work. 



Willis expects an insurance check soon to cover estimated losses of as much as $70,000 for the market contents. 



The ice machine, which cost $25,000, was among the most severe of the town's losses. With the check in hand, the town can proceed with replacing the ice machine, which would allow the town to resume selling ice to shrimpers.



"We're trying to get the market open," Willis said. "We unloaded a boat the other day."

Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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