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Georgetown fire: Some victims continue to struggle with recovery
By Jason Lesley
Ronnie Bellamy is still waiting on his recovery from the Front Street fire to start.
He watched S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley tell a battery of television cameras Tuesday that her administration is doing all it can to speed up Georgetown’s rebuilding after a fire Sept. 25 burned seven buildings in the 700 block of Front Street. The blaze closed eight businesses and left 13 people homeless.
Bellamy lived in an apartment above Buzz’s Roost and lost everything in the blaze.
He learned Tuesday, along with former residents and property owners, that the Department of Health and Environmental Control has found asbestos in the rubble.
“I’m just finding that out,” Bellamy said. “I’ve been having problems breathing since the fire.”
But that’s not his biggest worry. The psychological toll of the fire is beginning to take effect. “I could have been working by now,” Bellamy said, “but for some reason I’ve lost my passion for what I do. I’m a cook. I don’t know why. I’m seeing a doctor, a therapist.”
Kat McWilliams was Bellamy’s neighbor above Buzz’s Roost. She was happy to see the governor in Georgetown again though she still cries when people ask her about the fire. McWilliams, a former ambulance driver with Midway Fire and Rescue, said she just finished her master’s degree at Coastal Carolina University. “I don’t know what I’m going to do immediately,” she said. “I’ve lost everything.” Her only possessions are some donated clothing.
Haley had committed to speaking to the Georgetown Rotary Club months ago for its 75th anniversary year. She made the most of her trip to Georgetown by meeting with property owners affected by the fire and holding a press conference in Francis Marion Park.
Most of the businesses closed by the fire are finding new locations and reopening. Haley ordered the Department of Revenue to expedite licenses so owners of the restaurant Zest could reopen more quickly. Just as things were starting to look up, the chef, Christopher Kirwin of Myrtle Beach, was killed in a motorcycle accident last week.
Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner said he expects the State Law Enforcement Division report on the cause of the fire within a week.
Haley said DHEC will investigate the asbestos situation before the rubble is cleared. Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said the asbestos is contained and does not pose a threat to the public. The city, he said, might be able to assist with testing.
State Fire Marshal Shane Ray has pledged to ensure that any state permits required for compliance for the removal of debris or the rebuilding are expedited to the fullest extent of the law.
“I feel like we are in a better place than we were a few weeks ago,” Haley said. “I plan on coming back, continuing to celebrate the progress we are making as a community. This is a great community that has a great history that has a great quality of life and a great opportunity for business and tourism. We want to make sure we support it every way.”
While federal disaster funds are not warranted, Haley said the state is seeking grants to assist Georgetown’s rebuilding. The state Department of Natural Resources, she said, has applied for eight grants of $150,000, and the Department of Archives and History is seeking an additional $150,000.
Haley signed an executive order allowing the Department of Commerce to offer loans of up to $1 million to the city of Georgetown for repair of uninsured infrastructure. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism has pledged $20,000 to promote tourism.
“It’s nothing less than extraordinary,” Haley said. “Our job is to move the process as fast as we can.”
The Front Street Fire Relief Fund has collected donations of $141,428.55, according to Brian Tucker of the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce. A committee has disbursed $127,250. Tucker said about half went to business owners to help reopen the stores and restaurants in new locations, about a quarter went to the displaced residents and the remaining quarter aided the 130 people who lost jobs because of the fire.