Ten years later, Front Street fire remains seared in local memory
Paige Sawyer was taking his usual pre-dawn stroll along the Harborwalk in downtown Georgetown when he smelled smoke and saw flames.
What Sawyer discovered on Sept. 25, 2013, was the beginning of a fire that would destroy eight buildings, leave 10 people homeless and change the face of the city.
The fire started on the back deck of Limpin’ Jane’s Old South Eatery in the 700 block of Front Street.
“The fire at that time was going up the wall. It was as tall as I was,” Sawyer said. “I looked around to see if I could find anything to put it out with. There were no hoses, no fire extinguishers. No nothing.”
Sawyer called 911 and waited. When the firefighters didn’t arrive, he called again to tell them to hurry up.
The 911 operator told Sawyer, “they’ve got to put on their pants.”
When firefighters arrived around 5:30 a.m., Sawyer went with them behind Limpin’ Janes.
“I was amazed at how much more it had burned since I first saw it,” Sawyer said. “It was amazing how fast it burned.”
Joey Tanner, chief of Horry County Fire Rescue, was chief of the city’s fire department in 2013. While responding to Front Street from his home in Maryville, he saw a glow in the sky over downtown.
“I knew then it was a really bad situation,” Tanner said.
By the time he arrived the fire had spread to eight buildings and the wind was pushing flames from the wooden decks along the Harborwalk through the buildings and toward Front Street.
“It was a perfect storm for a fire,” Sawyer said. “Those back decks, the tide was out so all that was exposed, you could see the pluff mud. The wind was coming out of the east.”
“If [a building] was two or three stories, you had two or three decks,” Tanner said. “There might have been brick walls and brick facades between them, but the whole back side was open with glass.”
A big concern for the chief was that the fire would jump across the street and ignite the buildings on the other side.
“This is the core of your business district,” Tanner said. “You’re sitting there with all these buildings and your goal is to save as much as you possibly can to prevent it from spreading. So you’re attacking the fire where it was at but also preventing the buildings adjacent and across the street from burning as well.”
“It was frightening,” Sawyer said. “You just watched it go from building to building.”
Another concern of Tanner’s was stopping the fire from spreading to more buildings, including the S.C. Maritime Museum, which was the next structure in its path.
Johnny Weaver, president of the museum board, arrived and watched the firefighters at work. He said the flames were “coming right up through the water” from the fire hoses.
Since the museum had automatic sprinklers, Tanner decided that’s where firefighters would make their stand.
“It never got through because that was one of the places we knew we could stop the fire,” he said.
Weaver said there was some smoke damage and charring on the second floor of the building, which at that time was used for storage, but the fire never breached the building enough to activate the sprinklers.
“We’ve got pretty thick walls. Nothing showed up on the inside,” Weaver added. “We were lucky they got it out when they did. They saved a lot of stuff from more smoke damage.”
More than 125 firefighters from the city, the county and Midway Fire and Rescue brought the fire under control at around 9 a.m.
On that day, the city used one million more gallons of water than on a typical day.
The businesses that were destroyed were Limpin’ Jane’s, Buzz’s Roost, Zest, Doodlebugs, Goudelock and Co., Boardwalk Markette, Harborwalk Books and Colonial Floral Fascinations.
Buzz’s Roost and Colonial Floral Fascinations moved to the 900 block. The flower shop eventually found a permanent home on King Street.
Harborwalk Books, which reopened as Waterfront Books, and Doodlebugs moved to the 800 block of Front Street.
Limpin’ Jane’s relocated to Beaufort. Zest reopened as the Seven Hundred Modern Grill. It has since closed.
Jeanette Ard, the owner of Colonial Floral Fascinations lived upstairs in the building next to the S.C. Maritime Museum. She was also a City Council member and was on a business trip for the state’s Workforce Investment Board in Kentucky on the day of the fire.
Her friend, Peggy Wayne, called her at about 6 a.m. to tell her about the fire.
Ard called the Georgetown Police Chief Paul Gardner to tell him she was out of town. Gardner was relieved because firefighters had searched her apartment and considered her unaccounted for.
“He said it just gave him a big sense of relief to know that I was not there,” Ard said.
Ard flew home and arrived on Front Street at around 3:30 p.m.
“The buildings were all on the ground,” she said. “It was just a hard thing to walk up to.”
The day after the fire, Gov. Nikki Haley visited Georgetown to see the devastation. Haley met with Ard, who said the governor “cried as hard as I cried.”
For months, Haley would call Ard occasionally to see how she was doing.
“What the government can’t do for you I will personally see that you have it if you need it,” Ard said Haley told her.
The governor also had a staff member call Ard every day.
Ard also got a phone call from the owner of Callas Florist and Events in Murrells Inlet, who told her she could use the inventory in his shop to fill any orders she had.
“I did and I kept an accounting of it,” Ard said.
On Saturday, three days after the fire, Ard went to Murrells Inlet to create the floral arrangements needed for the next day’s church’s services. Then she delivered them.
“It gave me some peace,” Ard said. “I couldn’t just sit there and cry and worry about what was going to be. I had to just totally stand on my faith and know that the Lord was going to make a way for me. And he did.”
The 700 block of Front Street is now a park that has hosted everything from weddings to ice skating.
The Maritime Park was the brainchild of the board of the S.C. Maritime Museum. It leases the six middle lots and sublets the site for events. The rent is based on property taxes and insurance.
“The taxes have been steadily going up,” said Weaver.
The museum started with a five-year lease, thinking they would then go month-to-month. “We put the concrete down and fixed the deck,” Weaver said.
The museum doesn’t expect the park to be there for another 10 years.
Steve Timmons, a real estate investor from Greenville who owns the six lots, is in the process of purchasing the lot owned by Ard next to the museum.
After getting a lot of offers on the property over the years, Ard decided to sell to Timmons. She said she would never want to rebuild and live on the property again.
Weaver said the museum board considered buying the Ard property.
“We thought about it real hard, but we weren’t in that price range,” Weaver said. “It would have helped us, but not at that price”
Timmons could not be reached for comment.
Weaver doesn’t know what Timmons’ plans are, but said Timmons is “not quite there yet” for a return on his investment.
“He wants to put something in there that’s good for Georgetown, that’s in keeping with Georgetown,” Weaver said.
Since the fire, the city installed a standpipe system on the Harborwalk for firefighters to connect hoses to. Tanner said it’s an upgrade that Charlie Cribb, who succeeded him as city fire chief, worked hard to bring to the city.
Cribb said city officials had been talking about a fire suppression system on the Harborwalk for years before the fire.
“It’s one of those budgeted items that was going to be very expensive, going to be a lot of work,” he added.
In the end the system cost around $250,000.
Cribb designed it to have three pipes connected underneath the 1,470-foot Harborwalk.
“If I put that piping all the way down the boardwalk in one continuous pipe and for some reason it got damaged by a boat or a hurricane, I didn’t want the whole project to be out,” Cribb said.
The water isn’t taken from the Sampit River. It comes from a water truck or a fire hydrant.
City firefighters train on the standpipe system once every quarter to make sure everyone knows how to use it.
“It’s turned into a well-oiled machine,” Cribb said. “You’re not ever going to stop [fire], but we feel like we’ve done some steps to get more prepared.”
Tanner said his hometown has responded well.
“Georgetown survived the fire … because Georgetown is a strong community,” Tanner said. “They all stood together; the business community … [and] elected officials came together. It was, ‘this is not going to destroy us. We’re going to be stronger.’”