Flames and billowing smoke filled the sky in downtown Georgetown early Wednesday and by evening more than 100 years of history was gone – seven Front Street buildings, some with apartments above, destroyed.
Dozens of people, including residents from those buildings, spent the morning gathered in back parking lots off Front Street, many in tears, as buildings on the waterfront side of the city’s historic Front Street burned. Seven were destroyed and another was damaged.
Damage estimates hadn’t been tallied late Wednesday, but Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville estimated the figure would reach into the millions.
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“It’s devastating, there’s no question about that,” he said.
Businesses and residents in the heart of the city’s waterfront business district were displaced and Scoville said at least 100 people could be affected when job loss was added to the equation. That didn’t include any affect on the people in buildings across the street which weren’t burned but were closed.
Gov. Nikki Haley is expected to get a first-hand look at the devastation when she visits the city on Thursday.
Firefighters from Georgetown, Charleston and from the U.S. Coast Guard worked throughout the day to control the fire, at times straining the city’s water supply and forcing firefighters to shuttle water to the scene.
It was about 5 p.m. Wednesday when owners of property in the portion of Front Street that was not damaged were escorted to their buildings. Georgetown Emergency Management Director Sam Hodge said some businesses across the street the burned buildings might be able to open on Thursday, though Front Street likely will remain closed to traffic.
From the first call
The first call about a fire came in to 911 at 5:23 a.m. Wednesday and reported a fire in the 700 block of Front Street.
The first crews were on scene within about four minutes and found heavy fire on the backside of the buildings next to the Harborwalk, said Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner.
Two people were trapped inside and several more were coming out of apartments above the businesses, Tanner said. But he said everyone got out safely, and no residents were injure. One dog and a cat did not survive.
The cause of the fire is not yet known and could take days to determine. Officials still aren’t sure where the fire originated, but think it was near Limpin’ Janes.
City Councilman Paige Sawyer said he was in that area on his usual morning walk when he saw a plastic bag on fire on the Harborwalk then soon afterward noticed flames spreading up a wooden wall. He said he called firefighters and called firefighters , just before he tried to wake people in the buildings the flames were approaching.
Tanner said two explosions were reported but he could not provide details about them.
“We will go building by building, inch by inch because we need to make sure we find the cause of this fire,” he said. “We have no idea what caused the fire at this time. The fire went from building to building. It came from the Harborwalk side, went up into the attic and from building to building.”
Limpin’ Jane’s Old South Eatery owner Bryan Shepler, who lives above his business, said when his business alarm went off at 5 a.m. he first assumed it was a break-in, but when he stepped on the floor, he knew it was something else.
“Flames were shooting over the Harborwalk and the floor was so hot,” he said. “I grabbed my guitar, that was all I could think about.”
Shepler ran outside the business he’s run for about three years. “It kept spreading down the block,” he said. “Where do I even start now? I haven’t thought about it.”
The flames ran through Buzz’s Roost, Doodlebugs, the flower shop and bookstore and ended at the Maritime Museum, Shepler said. Six other families that live above their businesses also lost everything.
Nanci Conley, executive director for the Coastal S.C. Chapter of the American Red Cross, estimated that nine families living above the businesses were affected. Some of those families operated or worked the businesses which were destroyed, she said. The total number of people displaced was not available late Wednesday.
None of the old buildings – which had stood for 130 years and more – had sprinkler systems, Tanner said. The S.C. Maritime Museum, located along the row when buildings were lost, did have sprinklers and was spared from the blaze, but suffered smoke and water damage.
The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the S.C. Law Enforcement Division are investigating the fire due to the large size, but Tanner said that doesn’t mean the cause is suspicious.
The fire continued to smolder into the evening. Front Street will remain closed until an engineer can say that the buildings aren’t at risk of falling. An engineer and architect were looking at the buildings Wednesday afternoon.
Businesses that were destroyed or damaged include Colonial Florist, Harborwalk Books, Zest, Goudelock & Co., Doodlebug, Boardwalk Market, Buzz’s Roost and Limpin’ Jane’s Restaurant, officials said.
Storefronts at 721 and 723 Front Street are both listed in Georgetown’s National Register Historic District and were built around 1885.
George Fogel, who owns a sailboat that was docked at the Harborwalk, said his vessel was one of seven boats docked there that Ronny Campbell with Towboat USA came and towed to protect the vessels from the fire.
Fogel had not seen his boat since the fire, but said he was told the front sail had some damage and that was about it.
He also praised Campbell.
“He was one of the heroes down here today,” Fogel said. “When I got down there, I couldn’t see anything, and to hear my boat is OK means I am a lucky guy.”
Water system taxed
Problems with water pressure caused tankers to have to shuttle water from the Carroll Campbell Marina Complex, according to Hodge.
“This fire occurred at our peak demand period. 6 o’clock everyone gets up, showers, starts making breakfast... coinciding with this very large fire it put a very large stress to our system,” said Jonathan Heald, director of Georgetown’s public services department.
During the fire, Heald said Maryville was operating off the water tank and well system to ensure firefighters had enough volume and pressure needed in case the fire got out of control.
The U.S. Coast Guard pumped water from the harbor onto the businesses early during the fire, and by the afternoon a tanker from Charleston joined the battle, Hodge said.
He said residents reported discolored water, but that water remained safe for drinking and cooking. He suggested waiting washing any clothing until the water is no longer discolored because it will leave stains.
Heald said the discolored water was due to the high volume pumped through the system that stirred up sediment and would resolve on its own within a couple days.
He wasn’t sure if the water tank near City Hall, which is currently out of service, would have saved any buildings, but said it would’ve meant more water volume during the blaze.
Help for residents
Susan Beckman, who lives at 122 Broad St. near the fire, was woken up about 5:30 a.m. by her daughter, Emily, 9.
“There were lights bouncing in my room because I had the shade open,” Emily said. “I looked out my window and I saw smoke coming from that building and I was like, ‘Mom and Dad, wake up, wake up!”
The Georgetown office of the American Red Cross, located steps away from the fire on Screven Street, was open for people displaced by the fire and first responders. Meals were provided to the scores of first responders from more than a dozen agencies throughout the day, Conley said.
Mental health and client counselors will remain available to the families and businesses displaced to help develop recovery plans.
“We will stay on the scene until all the needs are met,” said Conley, adding that those wishing to help can make financial donations to the Red Cross. “Financial donations allow us to move things quickly and to meet the needs of each individual.”
The Salvation Army also was on scene providing aid.
Kathy McWilliams, who lives in an apartment above Buzz’s Roost, said she saw the fire early Wednesday on the Harborwalk and tried to help put it out.
“I saw it burning from my window,” she said. “We started taking as much water as we could until the cops told us to leave.
“Those umbrellas caught on fire and that was it. There was nothing else we could do. We tried everything we could. We tried everything. It’s a nightmare.”
Front Street may never look the same. Scoville said the rebuilding process will in part depend on damage sustained. While he expects the integrity of the historical district to remain in tact, some buildings may have to be raised to fall in line with new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood guidelines.
“We had just finished decorating everything,” McWilliams said. “We lost everything, and I just moved here two months ago.”
Scoville said he wasn’t sure what state or federal aid may be available, but said the city would welcome any help to rebuild.
The fire is an upsetting event and the county will do anything it can to help, said County Council Chairman Johnny Morant, an attorney whose office is located a few blocks from the burned stores.
“You wouldn’t think of that occurring there, in the downtown district, in an area that had been progressing and improving,” he said. “The downtown is really the draw for the city of Georgetown. Certainly the businesses in the city will all come together to preserve as much of the historic business district as we can,” Morant said.
Gov. Haley and other officials will tour the site Thursday morning and is expected to hold a press briefing at 10 a.m.
No schools were closed because of the fire, though students at Maryville Elementary School on Poplar Street and Howard Adult Center on South Kaminiski Street are being kept inside because of the smoke that was in the air, said Ray White, public information officer for the Georgetown County School District.
DHEC said there were no issues with air quality during the fire, but the agency remained on scene to monitor the water run off.
Two upcoming events will go on as planned: the Bridge 2 Bridge Run and the Wooden Boat Show.
Reporters Steve Jones, Vicki Grooms, Steve Palisin and Zane Wilson contributed to this report.