CAROLINA FOREST — There just wasnt time.
Thats what the three Horry County police officers who patrol the Carolina Forest area said about the fire Saturday that consumed 26 buildings and displaced nearly 190 people.
There wasnt time to be scared. There wasnt time to panic. And there wasnt enough time to explain to the residents of Windsor Green why they needed to hurry out of the condominium complex.
Lance Cpl Keith Massey and patrolmen first class Joseph Manjarrez and Christopher Cestare were the first police on scene Saturday. By the end of the night, all three had to seek help for themselves requiring treatment for smoke inhalation.
Manjarrez was nearing the end of his shift Saturday. He was at the Horry County Fire Station on Carolina Forest Boulevard writing a police report when a fire engine left and he heard a fellow officer mention the smoke plume from the Carolina Forest neighborhood.
Only one or two buildings appeared to be on fire at the time, he said. Even though he knew the wind was likely going to make the situation worse, he didnt realize just how bad the fire was about to get.
I didnt think it was going to be this bad, he said. I had no idea what I was getting into.
People were walking towards the fire, taking pictures and filming the blaze. He immediately set to work getting people away from the scene. Within five minutes, he said everything had changed. Building after building was catching in a snowball effect.
It was just chaos. I couldnt see. You couldnt see the buildings at the end of the courts the smoke was so heavy. Embers were falling. You really didnt know what had happened. You couldnt tell if something had exploded back there, if a plane had crashed. There was no telling what had happened it was just utter chaos.
Massey heard Manjarrez describe the smoke over the radio. He was down the road and hurried to the scene.
Were going to need some help
I immediately saw a huge, huge fire, he said. Black smoke, flames at the top of pine needles. I got on the radio and said, Captain, were going to need some help down here.
Massey said he went as far into the neighborhood as he could when a woman approached him saying her grandfather was trapped in building 4913.
Also a volunteer firefighter in Goretown, near Loris, Massey said he realized he might have time to help.
I went all the way up three flights of stairs, he said. Once I got up top I knew I was in trouble. It was completely black smoke. I couldnt see. I couldnt breath. Flames were on me.
When he looked down, he saw the 80-year-old man and pulled him back down the three flights of stairs reuniting him with his granddaughter.
He looked straight at me and said Thank you, Massey said.
Another woman said her dog was locked in a kennel in the bedroom of a unit in building 4915. Again, Massey realized he likely had just enough time to get the dog so he kicked in the door to rescue the pet.
He never learned the names of those residents, saying he didnt have the time.
He admits he was scared, but said he had no time to think about the fear.
The citizens of this county count on us, he said. She came to me screaming at the top of her lungs My grandfathers in that house. Shes expecting me to do something and thats exactly what I did.
There was no time to think. No time to panic. No time to anything.
Cestare had been a certified officer for eight days when the fire broke out. Hired in September, he had just graduated the police academy a week earlier.
He said he beat on doors trying to evacuate the frightened residents.
The majority of the people were just terrified, he said. They didnt know what to think they kept asking questions. We just had to keep reinforcing that there wasnt enough time to tell them everything that was going on.
Massey, Manjarrez and Cestare all went to the hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
Massey said he could feel himself falling ill. He said he got had trouble seeing, got dizzy and started vomiting.
I continued on because I knew we had to get these people out, he said. So we started beating on doors, got everybody out that we could.
He didnt realize until he was at the hospital that the fire had singed holes in his uniform and melted the soles of his shoes.
All three said they were surprised and comforted there were no casualties.
I thought we probably had lost some life, Massey said. Im proud of everybody. Im proud to say Im an Horry County police officer.
Contact AMANDA KELLEY at 626-0381, or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_akelley.