Officials confirm meth lab at scene of deadly Goose Creek fire

The fire that raged through Pine Harbor/Pinebrook Point apartments started about noon and left burned-out shells of 16 apartments as well as claiming three lives. (Brad Nettles/postandcourier.com)

Investigators removed an active meth lab from the Goose Creek apartment building where a fast-moving fire killed three people Thursday afternoon, authorities said today.

Agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration removed the lab from the gutted 16-unit building at Pine Harbour/Pinebrook Pointe apartments and hauled it away, Berkeley County Sheriff’s Capt. Rick Ollic said. With the evidence collected, the building was turned back over to the complex managers for repairs, he said.

“There was an active meth lab,” he said. “That is a fact.”

Ollic would not say whether the meth lab sparked the fire, as many residents suspect. He also would not say if the lab was located in the unit where the fire is believed to have started. He also would not reveal whether any of the three people who died were found in the unit with the lab.

Ollic said investigators from the sheriff’s office, DEA and the State Law Enforcement Division are still in the very early stages of their review and that more information would likely not be available until some time next week.

The three people who died in Thursday’s Goose Creek apartment fire have been identified as 69-year-old Joseph Raeth, 4-year-old Samuel Garbe of Goose Creek, and 19-year-old Morgan Abernathy of Goose Creek.

Abernathy and Garbe were found in the same apartment, and Raeth was found in an adjacent apartment, Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury said. The cause of their deaths will be released after all test results are received, he said.

Searchers believe they have recovered all of the people who were unaccounted for.

No more victims are thought to be in the rubble, Berkeley County sheriff’s spokesman Dan Moon said.

Authorities carried on their work at the Harbour Lake Drive partments today behind a gated entrance. Reporters were barred from entering.

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, which is handling the investigation, has been treating the fire as a crime scene, but no has been charged in the blaze.

Moon said one man was placed in a patrol car and questioned at the fire scene, but no one was arrested.

Several residents told The Post and Courier they expect more bodies will be found. Many also believe the fire was caused by an explosion at an illegal meth lab operating in the building. Authorities have refused to confirm that account, though narcotics officers and a haz-mat team responded to the building after the blaze.

Friday was the last day of school for many of the children who live at the apartment complex.

Many residents waited for the arrival of school buses outside the neighborhood’s gate. One talked of losing her engagement ring and her children’s nursery to the fire. Others spoke of the death of an older neighbor who would often walk his dog through the community.

Phair Broderick who lives across a parking lot from the building that burned, looked for her nephew, a high school student, to return home on a bus.

The 27-year-old said her children went to stay with their grandmother temporarily. She was worried about how the fire would affect them.

Broderick’s four sons often played with at least two children thought to be inside the unit that first caught fire. They would swim in the community’s two pools or play basketball at the recreation center.

She shed tears as she reminisced.

“They were very lovable,” she said. “We would just sit there and laugh and joke. There was never a dull moment. We were always laughing together.”

“When you have neighbors, they grow a part of you, and I’ve been crying since the fire.”

Like many residents, Broderick had heard about possible drug activity in the building, though she said her neighbors were quiet and behaved. Some had complained to apartment managers about their suspicions. Others were afraid to get wrapped up in “business that wasn’t theirs,” Broderick said.

But residents said nothing was done to solve the problem.

Lynn Pike, regional property manager for Pine Harbour Investments, said those allegations are false, spurred by one resident who ran her mouth based on pure speculation.

“We have had no complaints of suspicions that there was a meth lab over there,” she said. “If we had, we would have taken immediate action.”

Broderick herself had seen no evidence of the meth-making operation that some have talked about.

But she recalled the scene Thursday afternoon, when residents tried to attack the man thought to be responsible for the fire. She distanced herself from the chaos and from the smoke and flames that she said had an eerie appearance, as though chemicals were burning.

“It’s a very big shock that no one would do anything about that,” Broderick said. “This is a reality check. You have to know your surroundings and know your neighbors. It’s a big wake-up call for all of us now.”

For 82-year-old Kay Andersen, who walked by the complex Friday, the inferno came as no surprise.

Andersen moved away from the community five years ago, when it seemed as though the place was being engulfed with violence. She said the construction of a story-high wooden fence that prevented both rubberneckers and reporters from viewing the scene Friday seemed to only make it worse.

“The people were very friendly, but there’s a lot of BS going on too,” Andersen said. “You have to be very careful wherever you live. This stuff could happen anywhere.”

Workers at the gate of the Pine Harbour apartments refused to allow reporters onto the property.

One of the employees said that he would throw one newspaper reporter’s business card into the trash and that managers were refusing to comment on the fire or any complaints they took before the blaze.

He said chatter being circulated about the circumstances leading to the fire “were just rumors” and would remain so until the police completed their investigation.

Managers, he said, were working to place residents in new homes, and he added that they would have to get answers about their concerns from the authorities.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the quick response team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.