When the fire ignited, John Jolly and 14 relatives were exhausted from celebrating his sister’s wedding on the beaches of Kiawah Island earlier this month.
When flames started shooting through their 5,000-square-foot rental house, they were tucked under the covers.
When smoke crept into their bedrooms, the occupants of the home overlooking the Atlantic Ocean were fast asleep — except for one.
“I had a restless night because it was so warm in the room,” Jolly’s wife, Donna, later wrote in her explanation of what happened that evening. “It felt very uncomfortable to me.”
Known for her sensitivity to heat while trying to sleep, she had ambled downstairs to investigate the source of her insomnia when she saw smoke and flames filling a wall.
The 55-year-old ran through the house, waking everyone in its eight bedrooms — an effort that firefighters lauded as crucial to the reason no one was hurt in the Nov. 11 blaze. Fire alarms had been set off, Jolly said, but they were inaudible and wouldn’t have awakened anyone.
“I always complain when she turns on the fan during the winter so she can sleep,” said Jolly, 56, who awoke to his wife shouting and shaking him. “I’ll never fuss again, I’ll tell you that.
“If it wasn’t for my wife, we probably would have burned.”
By the time firefighters arrived, about 15 minutes later, the flames had reached the bedroom where the couple had been sleeping. In another 15 minutes, the inferno hurtled 30 feet into the air above the beachside home.
The $4 million house at 63 Eugenia Drive, part of a gated community at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, was ruined. Jolly said the blaze started around 5 a.m. near an outside fireplace, where a wood fire had been burning earlier in the evening, but its exact cause remains unknown.
Jolly said investigators are looking into problems with the fireplace, whose chimney was attached to the house. Family members had burned four bundles of wood, he said, but they thought the fire had died out around 10 the night before.
After that, what happened is not known.
Battalion Chief James Ghi of the St. Johns Fire and Rescue Department said his crews were fighting a significant fire elsewhere when they received the call. But firetrucks from St. Andrews had traveled to Kiawah to cover for St. Johns crews, which Ghi said demonstrates the effectiveness of a new automatic aid agreement among Charleston-area departments.
“The system worked in many ways that night,” Ghi said. “The family didn’t hang around. They did exactly what we’ve been asking people to do for years: They got out.”
Jolly, a fire commissioner in the Greenville area, and his family had been staying on Kiawah for a few days. They hosted his sister’s wedding reception in the house the day before.
“We were having a great time,” Jolly said. “Everything was perfect until the fire.”
Several family members tried to extinguish the blaze with a firehose, but its water stream wouldn’t reach.
Jolly and his relatives lost most of what they brought with them for the weekend — eyeglasses, prescription medications, cellphones. But except for hoarse throats, no one was injured.
In the second-floor room where he had been sleeping with his wife, Jolly said clothes and other belongings were incinerated. The only unscathed item: a Bible.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414