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Georgetown fire: Arson team finds no accelerants

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Fire investigators’ trained dogs found no evidence of an accelerant in the rubble of seven buildings destroyed by a fire on Front Street in Georgetown last week.

That hasn’t cooled suspicions about the cause of the fire.

Georgetown City Council Member Paige Sawyer was the first to see the fire last Tuesday around 5:15 a.m. at Limpin’ Jane’s restaurant while he was walking down the city’s Harborwalk along the Sampit River.

“I smelled smoke and as I was just coming up on it I saw a black plastic bag and cans in flame,” Sawyer said. “What really got me was the fire was in a back corner and going up the wall outside on the back deck. Flames were going up the wall but hadn’t burned the bottom. I can’t understand how it got up the wall without burning the bottom first. It looked like it was set.”

Sawyer called 911 and waited to guide firefighters to the blaze. “When I got back there with the firemen, the fire was in the rafters above the first floor and within 10 minutes it had jumped to Buzz’s Roost and I knew it was gone,” he said. “I just had no idea it was going to spread that fast.”

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville called the wooden decks and the pine floors in the century old buildings “fat lighter” for the way they burned.

“When I first got there, the chief said we’re going to lose this whole block,” Scoville said. “They would try to save the town clock and keep it from jumping the street and burning the other block. Luckily, we had enough help get here to stop it.”

Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner said it was “a nightmare fire” that he had been dreading since the day he arrived in Georgetown 29 years ago. With the buildings extending over the river, the fire created a vacuum that pulled air under the boardwalk. “You couldn’t get up there to fight it,” Scoville said.

The blaze was stopped by a firewall built when Goudelock’s was remodeled a few years ago. Firefighters stopped it short of the S.C. Maritime Museum with a continuous spray of water. The city of Georgetown treated more than a million extra gallons of water on the day of the fire.

Scoville said he was thankful that there were no fatalities and that injuries to three firefighters and a police officer were minor.

The Georgetown County Emergency Services director, Sam Hodge, said he hoped work could begin soon to stabilize the facades. “It’s important for Georgetown to save the face of Front Street,” he said. Two of those facades fell on Sunday, leaving a third standing precariously alone in the midst of the rubble.

“As I understand,” Scoville said, “the state fire marshal is looking at this very carefully. They look like they are in bad shape, but they are privately owned. There are safety issues to propping them up, and the heat may have caused so much structural damage they’re not safe at any cost.”

Scoville hopes the loss of seven historic buildings will renew the emphasis on preservation. “One of my concerns is that a lot of the younger generation is complacent,” he said. Georgetown’s Architectural Review Board has clashed with property owners and been overruled in recent years. Scoville said Georgetown City Council refused to fund a historic preservation staff person, but he would like to have a consultant available.

The ARB will have to approve what returns to Front Street. “I can’t imagine people not wanting to go back and preserve the ambiance and restore it as close as possible,” Scoville said. “ It’s going to have to be consistent with the streetscape.”

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