Pearl Brown was cooking dinner for herself and her grandson on a cool Tuesday evening in November 2014 when she smelled something burning.
When Brown, now 75, left the kitchen, she was stunned to see her entire front room ablaze. She screamed for her grandson to run out of the back door into the piney woods. Barefooted, Brown grabbed a garden hose and tried unsuccessfully to fight the fire, which engulfed the century-old, wooden structure in minutes.
Monday, she stood in front of the charred remains of the house, which was built by her father, served as her home for 67 years and was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail by an unknown person 18 months ago. Authorities believe someone was trying to target a relative and got the wrong house.
“It breaks my heart,” said Brown, who for 33 years was a beloved custodian at Lugoff-Elgin Middle School. “I lived here all my life.”
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On Wednesday, she will get a new home, free of charge, courtesy of her Kershaw County School District family, a Lancaster gold mine and friends and neighbors too numerous to list.
“Miss Pearl is an icon in the Lugoff-Elgin community,” said Dan Matthews, principal of Camden High School, who worked with her for eight years as an administrator at Lugoff-Elgin Middle School before Brown retired six years ago.
“It was more than a job to her,” he said. “She would come early and stay late. She was personally invested in her work, and working with the kids. She was a mentor for so many children.
“She fed people when they were hungry. She would take families into her home when they needed somewhere to stay. She would sacrifice her own needs to see that the needs of the children and their families were met.
“Now it’s our turn to give back,” he said.
‘It just got contagious’
The community is coming together for a house-warming party at 1 p.m. on Wednesday. The new double-wide, manufactured home sits on family land in the Lugoff-Elgin area across from the broken shell of her old house.
The home was donated by OceanGold Corp., an Australian-based company that operates the Haile gold mine in neighboring Lancaster County. The company also paid to move the home and donated a new heating and air conditioning system for a total of about $100,000.
“And they are an Australian company,” Matthews said. “They don’t know us from Adam.”
Linda White, community relations coordinator for the mine, said company officials heard about the fire and relief efforts in the news and wanted to help. The home was on land scheduled to be mined, and had to be moved anyway.
“We would have sold it,” White said. “But we wanted to be involved like everyone else. She had given her life for so many people. It just got contagious and the mine wanted to be a part of that.”
The house sits in a compound of sorts surrounded by the homes of her extended family who can keep an eye on Brown and her new home. That wasn’t the case with her old house, which, although across the street, was about 100 yards into the woods and hidden from the highway
“She feels more secure here after what happened,” Matthews said.
‘A symphony of people’
No arrests have been made in the firebombing. And an arrest doesn’t seem likely anytime soon, said Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews, who is no relation to Dan Matthews.
“We felt like it was a drug thing,” he said. “Obviously, people are not talking. My investigators were all over it and we’re pretty sure we know who did it, but we couldn’t prove it in a court of law.”
The new house is filled with donated furniture that had been stored in a donated storage unit. It has everything from towels in the huge bathroom in the master suite (featuring a garden tub, which Brown loves), to a wide screen television to completely furnished guest rooms for family and friends.
Less fun, but very important: the well and septic tank were purchased at discounts with $15,000 money raised on gofundme.com. They were installed for free, as were the plumbing, brick foundations, electrical, surveying and legal work.
United Way donated money. The Lugoff Fire Department held a spaghetti supper. The Camden High School vocational education class even built the front and back steps.
In all, Dan Matthews estimates the donations of money, material and labor have totaled about $150,00
“Everything has been a gift,” Dan Matthews said. “It hasn’t just been one person. It’s been a symphony of people.”
For Brown, who has been staying with relatives since her home burned, the outpouring has been both overwhelming and a joy.
“I love it,” she said, sitting in her well-appointed living room. “I thank everyone who had me in their prayers and helped get me on my feet. Bless you.”