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Georgetown: Fire destroys eight waterfront businesses

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown’s iconic rainbow row of shops on Front Street were a blackened shell Wednesday after a massive fire swept through the heart of the Historic District.

Eight businesses along the Sampit River in the 700 block of Front Street were destroyed and 10 people were left homeless in the blaze that began at 5:23 a.m. that raced through the buildings’ common attic, according to Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner.

“This has been the day we’ve been dreading, the nightmare fire since the day I came here 29 years ago,” Tanner said. “It came from the Harborwalk side, went up into the attic and from building to building.”

The fire was stopped at the South Carolina Maritime Museum, where a sprinkler system inside the renovated building helped contain it, Tanner said. It did not reach the city’s famous clock tower at the other end of the block. “I think we were very fortunate,” Tanner said, “that we stopped it where we stopped it.”

Among the destroyed businesses were Limpin’ Jane’s Old South Eatery, Buzz’s Roost, Zest, Doodlebugs, Goudelock and Co., Boardwalk Markette, Harborwalk Books and Colonial Floral Fascinations. Others in the block suffered smoke and water damage including the Maritime Museum.

Tanner said firefighters encountered the blaze on Limpin’ Jane’s back deck but were quickly overwhelmed when the wind whipped up. As they retreated, an explosion rocked the building, scattering bricks and glass across Front Street. “We came within a foot of killing three firemen,” the chief said. Tanner said SCE&G was helping to determine if the source of the explosion was a natural gas line.

Tanner told property owners at a meeting Wednesday afternoon that he feared losing the whole block when he arrived on the scene at 5:27 a.m. and even thought the wind might carry the blaze across Front Street and ignite another row of buildings.

Tanner said it could take weeks to determine the cause. “We will go building by building, inch by inch because we need to make sure we find the cause of this fire,” he said. “Right now it’s too dangerous to put people in those buildings to do an investigation.”

The remaining buildings in the 700 block will remain off limits until structural engineers conduct tests to verify their safety, Tanner said. Georgetown officials have asked the State Law Enforcement Division and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to investigate the fire because it was so large. The city has contracted with a firm to put up a security fence and lighting.

Wanda and John Rogers own the building containing Harborwalk Books and lived in an apartment on the second floor. Wanda Rogers said she looked out her window at 5:30 and saw fire trucks on Front Street. “Police began banging on our door, saying ‘Get out now!’ The fire was about three doors down, and it jumped from deck to deck,” she said.

Wanda Rogers said she and her husband left their apartment and went to the Harborwalk along the Sampit River. “I was praying that it didn’t spread,” she said, “and the next thing I saw it was on our roof.”

Ann Carlson, owner of Harborwalk Books, said a neighbor knocked on her door about 6 a.m. with news of the fire. “It was really bad. She was very upset,” Carlson said. “I got into my car and drove downtown and could see flames coming out of my bookstore. I watched for awhile and walked away.

“John and Wanda are who I feel sorry for. The people who live in those apartments lost everything.”

The owner of Limpin’ Jane’s Old South Eatery, Bryan Shepler, who lives above his business, said he salvaged only a guitar after he saw flames and ran out.

Tanner said firefighters helped free two people who were trapped on a second floor.

By 10 a.m. everyone was accounted for, he said. “Our No. 1 priority is to protect life,” he said as an explanation as to why firefighters didn’t immediately hit the buildings with water.

Georgetown City Council Member Paige Sawyer said he heard that a pet dog perished in the fire. A resident of Front Street who escaped the fire said his cats were killed.

More than 125 firefighters, including units from Midway Fire and Rescue and Murrells Inlet-Garden City, responded to the blaze and had it contained by 9 a.m.

The U.S. Coast Guard sent a fire boat that sprayed water from the harbor on the burning buildings. Charleston firefighters arrived late Wednesday afternoon to take over the night shift of watching for the fire to rekindle.

Coast Guard members also cut seven boats docked in the river near the fire loose, and Ronnie Campbell with Tow Boat USA removed them. Some had been damaged by the heat.

Volunteers Jeepy Ford and Mac McAlister were allowed to remove some exhibits from the Maritime Museum to prevent them from suffering any more water damage once the fire was under control.

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said he hoped the burned area could be secured before the annual Wooden Boat Show that benefits the museum on Oct. 19. Boat show organizers have vowed the event will be held. “The boat show committee has already agreed that the community needs the boat show more this year than ever, and we plan to make it the biggest and best,” said Susan Sanders, director of the S.C. Maritime Museum.

Organizers of the Third Annual Georgetown Bridge2Bridge Half Marathon, 12K and 5K Run have also announced that their event will continue as planned. The event, in which runners wind through historic Georgetown, will be held Oct. 12.

“This is a very important area to our economy,” Scoville said. “It’s a tremendous loss. All these employees will be out of work. We ask for your thoughts and prayers for the community.”

Scoville said the city of Georgetown would offer no-interest loans to property owners until insurance settlements are made in order to speed the rebuilding.

Water pressure in homes and businesses in Georgetown was reduced to a trickle as firefighters sprayed the fire. Water in Maryville was shut off and redirected to Front Street.

No injuries were reported, but Tanner said some firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion. Red Cross volunteers worked with first responders at the scene to provide treatment.

Decatur and Susan Beckman, who live on Broad Street, set up a breakfast buffet for firefighters in their yard. Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion donated items, and members of the community brought food and drinks throughout the morning.

A fund to assist the business and property owners has been set up at First Citizens Bank. Al Joseph, president of the Georgetown Business Association, authorized his group’s tax ID number to be used for the account.

Maria Lamm, representing FEMA, told owners of the buildings that they would not have to rebuild on pilings. Because they are commercial buildings, they only must be flood-proof. Because of the fire, she said, the buildings no longer have historical significance.

Rick Martin of Georgetown Building and Planning said the city’s priority would be securing the facades of the buildings and starting clean-up.

He said the city would work with the property owners on a combined debris removal effort to save money. Ashleigh B. Weatherly of Kyzer and Timmerman Structural Engineers of Myrtle Beach said property owners could also save money by agreeing on a contractor to build a single waterproof shell before hiring their own contractors to rebuild the stores.

Gov. Nikki Haley has scheduled a press conference at 10 a.m. today on Front Street.

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