THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Fire: Real estate firm will rebuild in Litchfield
By Jason Lesley
Jimmy Smith watched a work crew demolish the burned shell of his real estate office on Highway 17 in Litchfield this week and talked about rebuilding.
“We’re going to try to build back,” Smith said. “It won’t be as big a place as we had, but this is such a good location.”
Smith has spent a hectic three weeks moving his operation into the former Blockbuster Video store at Litchfield Market Village and getting it up and running with new phones, computers and fax machines.
Immediately after the fire in the early morning of March 3, Smith and his employees began working from his house in Litchfield Country Club. He had people at the smouldering ruins of the real estate office on that Sunday to greet renters and send them to his house for a key — he kept spare keys to all his rental properties in his car.
“It’s sad,” he said, “but you don’t have time to cry. We had to strap it on.”
Spare linens were lost in the fire along with a room Smith called the “K-mart room” containing extra appliances and silverware. Employees and customers all rolled with the punches that first week of March. They even kept feeding Wildman and other feral cats that lived near the building.
“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Smith said Tuesday. “You would go to make a fax and realize you don’t have a fax machine. You would need to scan something and e-mail and you couldn’t do that either. Luckily one of the girls who works for me had three offices of furniture we were able to get. Day by day things got better.”
Smith said he’s gotten thousands of phone calls since the fire, and almost all the callers want to know what caused it. Investigations by the State Law Enforcement Division and his insurer, Lloyds of London, haven’t been completed.
Smith has photos of the burning real estate office on his phone. He pulls up one with smoke and flame coming from the left side of the building. Another shows it engulfed in flames.
Smith missed seeing his building burn in person. “We were staying at my wife’s house at the south end of Pawleys,” he said. “ADT tried to call me at 2 a.m., and, of course, I wasn’t at home. They had my other number, but for some reason they didn’t call it.”
Smith didn’t get word of the fire until 4:30 a.m. when Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman called his cell phone and said the office was totaled.
“It was burned down before I got over here,” Smith said. “The fire chief was really good, and 45 firemen were working their butts off to keep the fire from spreading to houses behind the building. The wind was blowing. That didn’t help things.”
Smith said it may have been a good thing he wasn’t at the fire when it began. He would have been tempted to run into the building to save memorabilia he has collected over 40 years.
Among the irreplaceable items were original paintings of South Carolina football coaches Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier and baseball coach Ray Tanner by artist Tom Gallo. Also lost was a football signed by former USC coach Jim Carlen, who died last summer, and a Notre Dame helmet signed by former coach Charlie Weis. “You can’t put a value on that stuff,” Smith said.
The one football that firemen were able to save was signed by former USC coach Brad Scott, but balls signed by Spurrier, Holtz and former Coastal Carolina coach David Bennett were lost in the fire.
A firewall saved a number of plaques on the wall in his office, and friends have called to say they will replace those that were burned if possible. NFL coach John Fox has called to say he will send Smith a signed football from the Denver Broncos to replace the Carolina Panthers ball lost in the fire. Former Dallas Cowboy Tony Dorsett called to say he will send a new signed football jersey.
Smith’s contacts are amazing. Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall, whose team is in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament, sent a text after hearing about the fire. He plans to vacation here for 10 days in May. Coastal Carolina basketball coach Cliff Ellis called while Smith was watching the demolition on Tuesday.
Former New York Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson met Smith at the Litchfield Diner for breakfast the day after the fire and prayed with him.
Smith has been in business for 40 years and never had a fire. “All of a sudden,” he said, “something like this happened.”
The fire has inspired other real estate business owners to back up their files and take pictures of everything for their records.
Smith said his new building will sit on the same footprint of the old one so it can be grandfathered under the zoning laws. When he built in 1989, Smith was allowed to build 60 feet from the highway. The rules today require a 90-foot setback. He wants to save his office’s sign because it won’t meet new guidelines either. His temporary sign directing people to the office at the old Blockbuster Video store can only remain up for 28 days. He will attach it to the old Smith Real Estate sign when its time expires.
Smith said his new building will likely have HardiPlank siding and a metal roof. The burned building had 30,000 square feet of what he called pecky cypress. “If it catches fire, it will burn,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll put pecky cypress in the new office.”
There will be some cypress, he said, because it has meaning. Smith’s father was in the timber business and cut his own cypress.
“We built our first beach house on the north end of Pawleys out of rough cypress outside and pecky inside,” Smith said. “Even the furniture was made of cypress. I’ll have to fix one little place up with cypress but won’t do it like before.”
Two features his new building will have include a sprinkler system and surge protectors. Smith thinks an electrical surge might have started the fire in a computer room.
He got solace from a chaplain for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates who spoke to the Rotary Club after the fire. “When an all-pro gets hurt,” Smith said, “he gets stronger instead of weaker. I feel like I’m an old pro and I just got stronger.”