GEORGETOWN — Paige Sawyer watched in horror during the pre-dawn darkness Wednesday as flames exploded across the heart of the city’s deck-planked Harborwalk — the main tourist lure that keeps this antebellum port vibrant.
“The fire jumped from deck to deck,” he said, tracing its path across two floors of wooden porches where diners previously enjoyed beer and shrimp over the Sampit River.
The four-term city councilman had been part of the team of city officials, business people and residents who joined during the late 1980s and early 1990s to make historic Front Street and the river the focal point of the town’s revival.
Now, he saw it all disappearing in flames.
“This is too hard to control,” he thought as the dry wood cracked and popped. “The entire block is going to burn. ... I could see what was going to happen.
“The wind was blowing. I knew the make-up of the buildings. They’re all heart pine. It was the perfect storm for fire.”
Three days after the blaze, officials said they had no definitive cause behind the fire, but one theory points to debris that caught fire behind the Limpin’ Jane’s tap room, a favorite watering hole.
At least 10 businesses were affected and 130 people put out of work. The recovery cost is expected to go into the millions, while people continue to wonder when Georgetown’s tourism base will come back.
Fire Chief Joey Tanner said Friday it is too early to predict what will be done in terms of preventing such a fire in the future but that “everything, now, is on the table.”
Tanner and Mayor Jack Scoville said there was no problem with water pressure that night as some have rumored.
“The problem was not having enough trucks and personnel here early,” Scoville said. “We had to have help here early on.”
That section of the city had only two hydrants within close reach, so there was a wait while fire departments from more than a dozen other jurisdictions came in and hooked up lines to hydrants farther away to put more water on the blaze. The city fire department also had on hand auxiliary pumps to pull water from the river.
Tanner said that when his crews arrived on the scene four minutes after the call, the back deck of the Limpin’ Jane’s was a fiery mess.
One firefighter put water on the inferno and within moments he was overcome and the front end of the building exploded outward onto Front Street, Tanner said.
Some firefighters who arrived first on the scene were sent to awaken, alert or rescue an undetermined number of people living in apartments above the store fronts.
Georgetown also has a small fireboat that was put into action. It was later aided by a fire boat from North Charleston.
In all, about a dozen fire departments and a couple of hundred firefighters helped battle the blaze, said State Fire Marshal Shane Ray, who was at the scene. “We had a good response,” he said. “It was locals helping locals.”
City officials said 2.8 million gallons of water were poured on the fire during a four-hour span — more than double what the city uses in an average day — and that doesn’t count the water pulled from the Sampit River.
Police Chief Paul Gardner said the investigation into the cause is continuing, led by the State Law Enforcement Division and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. There was no indication of arson, but officials said they wanted to determine the origin. Video of the street and from private individuals is being examined, he said.
Mayor Scoville predicted that when the owners do rebuild, sprinklers will be a part of the design.
“If I owned any of them, I’d give serious thought to it,” he said.
Sawyer, who owns a photography shop in town, was out for a morning walk along the Harborwalk about 5:15 a.m. Wednesday when he smelled smoke. He walked a little farther and saw fire on the back deck of Limpin’ Jane’s burning from what looked like slick plastic, topped with some other material and two burned cans that were bigger than cans of green beans but smaller than paint cans.
The flames shot up a wall and Sawyer used his cellphone to call 911. He rushed to an alley so he could cut through to Front Street and meet the fire department. The engines arrived within minutes. The firefighters grabbed a hose and Sawyer led them back through the alley to the fire.
As the firefighters poured on water, the flames raced out of control across the wooden porches and railing to the buildings’ rafters.
Sawyer ran up to some of the apartments that filled the upper stories of the buildings and joined firefighters trying to warn anyone still in the buildings. “I knew people upstairs. I went up and banged on doors,” Sawyer said. He also helped move a boat from the fire-threatened moorings.
Sawyer believes firefighters did all they could. “It was just an impossible fire to put out.”
Merchants who escaped the flames agreed. They said they didn’t see what else could have been done to save the block from a blaze that took only moments to get out of hand,
“The wind was not our friend,” said Skip Yeager, owner of Sweeties, an ice cream and sweet goods shop that survived the fire, only losing electricity and their ice cream.
Ray, the state fire marshal, said his office will be available to work with local officials to determine what will be done to rebuild, including whether sprinklers will be needed.
Requiring sprinklers sounds good, but that cost would be exorbitant, Yeager said.
“In historic buildings it’s hard to get in and retrofit walls,” he said. The structure where his store is, in the 700 block of Front Street, dates to about 1842 and the materials are original.
“These floors are made out of heart of pine,” Yeager said. “Some people call them ‘fat lighter.’ It’s just full of sap. The wood has had 200 years to dry out.”
The businesses either totally lost or in recovery mode include are Goudelock & Co., Limpin’ Jane’s, Doodlebugs, Zest restaurant, Buzz’s Roost, Boardwalk Markette, Harborwalk Books, Colonial Floral Fascinations and the S.C. Maritime Museum.
Back in the late 1980s Sawyer served on the Downtown Georgetown Renewal Association to work with the city and others to revitalize the historic town, which in early colonial times was one of the nation’s busiest seaports.
They focused on the historic waterfront and the downtown antebellum houses behind it.
“We knew Front Street was the engine that would drive the locomotive of Georgetown,” Sawyer said.
In 1989, the centerpiece of the revitalization went in: Harborwalk, a boardwalk on pilings that stretched Front Street’s waterfront length.
Sawyer, 65, remembers what it was like before. Boats tied to dilapidated and rotting pilings.
With the Harborwalk, Front Street “really took off,” Sawyer said. By 1993, it was lined with trendy shops, restaurants and bars. Sawyer even had a photo studio there for awhile.
Other towns and cities came to take a look, and some, such as Conway, replicated the effort, Sawyer said.
Despite Wednesday’s loss of seven buildings at the center of Front Street, Sawyer is optimistic the Harborwalk will return even better.
“Right now,” he said, referring to the throng of gawkers and shoppers who converged on the street Friday, “Georgetown is alive. Stores on two sides are open for business and busy.”
Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5554