Georgetown building facade collapses as Front St. Fire cleanup continues

One building is complete gone after the front façade collapsed. Source: Stephanie Robusto.
One building is complete gone after the front façade collapsed. Source: Stephanie Robusto.
Photo Courtesy of Chip Burgess
Photo Courtesy of Chip Burgess
Photo Courtesy WMBF news viewer
Photo Courtesy WMBF news viewer

GEORGETOWN, SC (WMBF) – Front façades on two of the seven buildings damaged in the Front Street Fire in Georgetown last week have fallen down, and the cleanup and recovery process continues.

In total, 10 businesses in seven buildings have been displaced by the fire that ripped through Georgetown's historic district in the early morning of Wednesday, September 25. No one was injured.

An investigation into the cause of the fire was launched, but officials have still not provided details on the source or possible cause of the massive blaze.

Two of the buildings' façades fall down early Sunday morning, and information will be provided to the state fire marshal to decide what to the with the other buildings' façades, said City Administrator Chris Carter. He said he is not aware of any severe damage to the waterfront Harbor Walk, but there will be repairs made to it.

The Charleston Historical Preservation Society came to look at the debris and other material left by the fire to decide if they could use it in any of their projects. Each owner will have to decide what to do with the material, Carter said, and any plans would have to go through the architectural review board. He's hoping other businesses in the area consider adding sprinklers.

Governor tours site of the fire

Governor Nikki Haley and state and local officials toured the area Thursday morning, and held a brief news conference with an update on the amount of damage, investigation efforts, and plans for recovery.

View the full story on Thursday morning's news conference here

Crews from over a dozen emergency departments across the state responded to the fire, which was first reported just before 5:30 a.m. Wednesday. The fire is under control, and crews are bringing in fencing and lighting to secure the area while debris are cleared out from the businesses that were destroyed, Georgetown County officials stated.

Seven buildings severely damaged, but no injuries

The fire caused severe damage to seven buildings on the 700 block of Front Street, and the SC Maritime Museum sustained smoke and water damage, officials stated. The building's sprinkler system worked correctly, preventing widespread damage.

The fire started in one building, and then went up into the shared attic and spread building-to-building. Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner said the fire was a worst-case scenario for the historic buildings.

At a press conference held Wednesday morning, Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner confirmed there were no major injuries, and everyone is safe and accounted for. The cause of the fire is unknown at this point.

According to Sam Hodge with Georgetown County Emergency Management, ten buildings in total were affected. The businesses affected include restaurants, a bookstore and a florist. The Georgetown Maritime Museum and the town clock tower were both saved, but might suffer smoke damage. Some of the buildings affected date back to the 17th Century.

Chief Tanner said fire was able to spread quickly through the historic buildings because of their antiquated construction.

"In old time construction, there's no sprinkler system installed there," Chief Tanner said. "These buildings share a common attic, and it spread through there. As the fire came up from the Harborwalk, it spread into the attic and started going across the buildings. It's a worst case scenario."

Georgetown Capt. Nelson Brown said there are between 12 and 14 businesses unaffected by the fire that are enclosed in the area where crews are investigating. He said its likely the road will be closed for weeks, but he's aiming to have the businesses that can reopen to reopen tomorrow.

All of the available water in Georgetown was being used to fight the fire, so crews had to shuttle in water form the Carroll Ashmore Campbell Marine Complex.

"We pumped so much water that the city's water supply couldn't support it," Mayor Scoville said. "We had to shut down some of the communities temporarily to use the water here.  That's just part of having an aging infrastructure."

The investigation begins

Fire Chief Tanner said it could be days before it's known where the fire even started.

"It's too dangerous to put people in those buildings to do the final investigation," he said. "It could be days before we find out anything here. What we are going to do this afternoon is we have a structural engineer here to look at the buildings and see what buildings we can go into."

Fire Chief Tanner said that an explosion was reported, but he did not know if the fire caused the explosion or vice versa. The South Carolina branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been called in to investigate due to the size of the fire.

Georgetown Police Chief Paul Gardner said Thursday that the State Law Enforcement Division's arson team is on site, looking into reports about the fire starting outside one of the buildings.

"Investigations are already underway," Gov. Haley said. "This is how it should be done."

Over 100 emergency workers respond

Georgetown officials confirmed that over 100 emergency workers responded to the fire and remained on scene Wednesday. Agencies that responded include Conway Fire, Surfside Fire, Horry County Fire Rescue, Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire and Rescue, the Coast Guard, the Johnsonville Fire Department, Myrtle Beach fire Department, and North Myrtle Beach Fire Department.

The US Coast Guard was called to the scene because the buildings are on the waterfront and boats were cut loose for the firefighters to fight the blaze.

The American Red Cross released a statement stating they assisted first responders by providing breakfast and lunch. They will stay on the scene to provide hydration and food to first responders as long as needed. There are also client case workers and mental health professionals on the scene to assist residents that have been affected by the fire.

There were nine families, or 13 people displaced. Those without family or friends nearby were placed in a hotel. All 13 are receiving food and emergency kits from the Red Cross.

The Salvation Army also responded to offer assistance to victims of the fire, city officials confirmed.

According to Georgetown County Emergency Management, there are reports of discolored water due to the fire. It is safe to drink, the agency stated in a tweet, but it does not advise that residents wash their clothes until the scene is clear.

Aftermath and recovery

Mayor Scoville called the fire a "tremendous blow to the city" during the Wednesday morning news conference.

"I'm expecting all our churches and non-profits to help those affected by the fire," Mayor Scoville said. "The city is looking into a no cost loan to the new clean up."

Gov. Haley confirmed Georgetown is not eligible for funds from FEMA, because the fire was not a natural disaster.  However, she said she is looking what they can do from a historical and tourism aspect.

Haley said that funding is "going to be more private."

Haley said that a Front Street Fire Relief fund has been set up, and donations can be made at any First Citizens Bank.

Two major events scheduled for next month in Georgetown, the Bridge 2 Bridge Run and the Wood Boat Show, will both go ahead as planned, city officials confirmed.

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