East Bay Street has re-opened to traffic in the aftermath of a massive blaze that tore through a commercial building in the heart of downtown Charleston's tourist district early today, wiping out three bars and causing the roof to collapse.
The cause of the fire remains unknown. Fire officials have suspended their investigation due to safety concerns over the structural integrity of the damaged building at 213 East Bay St.
“Fire investigators will work with the insurance company to determine if the investigation can continue after elements of the building can be stabilized,” Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh said. “The sidewalk and parking area in front of the building will remain closed to maintain a safe area.”
In a press conference this afternoon, Charleston Fire Chief Karen Brack said units arrived at 213 East Bay St. within four minutes of receiving the call about 1 a.m.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said that the quick response of about 75 firefighters helped prevent the flames from spreading to adjacent buildings.
Surrounding streets should reopen to traffic this afternoon, Riley said.
What caused the fire is still unknown.
No one was injured, but fire crews remain on the scene, looking for hot spots. For much of the day, East Bay Street between South Market and Cumberland streets was completely closed to traffic.
The mayor praised the work of firefighters, who kept the fast-moving blaze from spreading to neighboring buildings in this densely-built stretch of East Bay.
“It was a terrible fire,” Riley said. “They really did an amazing job.”
Onlookers gathered later in the morning along the steps of the Customs House, which is across the street from the building, to watch as crews doused hot spots and cut off power to the building.
Among those on hand was Clint Gaskins, owner of Squeeze, a bar that was damaged in the blaze. He said the fire couldn't have happened at a worse time, right before the Cooper River Bridge Run and the start of his club's busiest time of year.
“I don't know what to think right now,” he said. “You lose your bar, your job — everything — all in one shot.”
Crews from the Charleston, North Charleston, James Island and St. Andrews fire departments raced to East Bay Street after the blaze was reported at 1 a.m., Julazadeh said.
Massive clouds of smoke poured from the salmon-colored, two-story building and flames could see be seen shooting into the darkened sky. The building is home to three bars: Light, Squeeze and The Brick.
Fire crews entered the building and reached the second floor, but they turned back, evacuated the building and set up a defensive operation outside as the blaze grew, Julazadeh said.
The fire breached the roof of the building and the roof collapsed onto the second floor, Julazadeh said.
But firefighters were able to prevent the blaze from spreading to the adjacent buildings that were in direct contact with the structure, Julazadeh said.
The structural stability of 213 East Bay St. will need to be reviewed before vehicle or foot traffic is allowed through the area, Julazadeh said.
John Chandler, 26, awoke to the shrill sound of a fire alarm ringing throughout his apartment about 1 a.m.
Eager to go back to sleep, he said he convinced himself the alarm was only a drill. The urgent pounding on his front door moments later said otherwise.
Firefighters yelled for residents to get out of bed and leave the building. Flames hadn't reached Chandler's apartment, which sits above Wet Willies, but as smoke quickly filled the space he said he knew he was in danger.
Chandler dashed across the apartment to make sure his 27-year-old roommate,, Liz Fulton was awake. The pair evacuated alongside other residents from the side of the building.
“It happened really fast,” Chandler said. “I didn't know what to do. I've never experienced anything like that.”
Chandler peered up at the damage from a side walk at the corner of East Bay and Cumberland streets. He stood disheveled, dressed in a dark blue sweatshirt, ripped pajama bottoms and only one shoe. He lost the other in the rush of it all, he said.
Joey Mosny, 27, arrived at nearby High Cotton about 8 a.m. to prep for the restaurant's dinner service. He watched from a distance as crews continued to clear the damaged building and put up barricades to block surrounding streets.
“Not another one,” he said with a sigh, reflecting on other nearby fires in recent months.
He wondered what could have caused this particular blaze and expressed relief that no one was hurt.
“A fire can get out of control pretty quickly. If you can't put it out, you can't put it out,” he said.
Fire officials have not determined cause of the blaze. The building is valued at $2.2 million, according to Charleston County property records.
Patrons turned to social media to offer condolence and support to the damaged businesses.
“I feel like I woke up and had a bad dream... Heart hurts today for my @SQUEEZE_BAR family,” one woman wrote on Twitter.
“Heartbroken to hear the news of @TheBrickCHS last night,” another patron tweeted.
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Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.