Haley visits fire-damaged Georgetown tourism district

Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at a press conference Thursday in Georgetown after a fire there early Wednesday destroyed or closed 10 businesses along Front Street.

— City Councilwoman Jeanette Ard operated a flower shop on Front Street for decades. She lived upstairs and kept three people employed.

Wednesday’s fire destroyed all that in a couple of hours.

“This was the anchor of the street,” she said of the row of burned-out buildings and still smoldering bricks. “This is the worst. This is the absolute worst.”

A day after fire ripped through seven buildings, wiped out or closed 10 businesses and put 130 people in tourism-dependent jobs out of work, a collection of state and local officials, led by Gov. Nikki Haley, said Georgetown needs help and is inviting everyone to come back.

“I want people to visit Georgetown,” the governor said following a tour of the damage. “I want them to see how beautiful it still is.”

Haley also announced that a special fund has been established for private donations to help those affected by the fire. The Front Street Relief Fund is being run through First Citizens Bank. Donations also can be made by calling (843) 546-8591.

Meanwhile, the process of determining the cause is continuing, with no early leads announced. The State Law Enforcement Division and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating. The origin point is still believed to be in a deck area behind a local tap room along the city’s Harborwalk area on the Sampit River.

Authorities confirmed Thursday that four rescuers were slightly injured fighting the early morning fire when the facade of one of the buildings blew out into Front Street.

Three firefighters were released but a Georgetown police officer who received a slight concussion isn’t expected to leave a local hospital until Friday.

Visitors to Front Street Thursday still could smell the thick stench of acrid fumes as piles of bricks were cooling and the odor of burnt wood blew in the wind. A chain-link fence had gone up to keep people away from the damage. Police officials said that because of the weakened state of the buildings, it could be weeks before Front Street is fully open to cars.

One building was so badly damaged that crews used large equipment to tear down its facade, and piles of ash, wood and metal were dropped into the street.

With potentially millions of dollars in losses and damages, what can be done in terms of assisting the recovery also remains unclear. Haley and other state and federal officials said they will look where they can for funds that might help in the rebuilding effort, but that public money might not be there.

“I think it is going to be more private than it is anything else,” Haley said, referring to insurance involvement and donations.

“It’s going to depend on the owners,” Georgetown building official Rick Martin said about the pace of settling over the damages. Some victims are still in shock, he said.

Some federal sources might be available on the basis that some of the seven lost buildings were on the National Register, with the youngest being around 100 years old.

“Keep in mind this is a National Historic District,“ said state Sen. Yancy McGill, D-Williamsburg, whose district includes Georgetown.

McGill said the fire can be viewed as having statewide significance, meaning the Legislature should get involved, including for ways to reimburse the cost of suppressing the blaze.

“This is a major disaster for Georgetown County,” he said. “This is a major disaster for South Carolina,” he said.

Ard, the councilwoman, was among those trying to find optimism. Her hope? That the piles of historic brick might be rescued and re-used in the rebuilding.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.