Pat McIntosh walked to the front window of her Goose Creek apartment to pull back the blinds and let in some light before watching the noon news.
May 31 was a sunny day outside Pine Harbour Apartments, full of blue sky and swaddling heat that signaled the approach of another Lowcountry summer. Most folks not at work on this Thursday busied themselves indoors with chores or caught a nap before their kids returned home from school.
Few had any idea that a pair of ex-cons were holed up on the second floor of Building D with a young child and a mess of volatile chemicals used to brew methamphetamine, a powerful and highly addictive stimulant.
Some neighbors had seen smoke waft from the apartment on occasion. Others noticed odd smells. But many, like McIntosh, were more familiar with a friendly young woman who lived there and the little boy she often watched during the day.
So McIntosh was stunned when she opened her blinds and saw black smoke billowing from the building across the street where the young woman lived.
A loud boom sounded. Glass shattered. The smoke turned from black to gray, then to a strange yellow hue. In no time, flames chewed through the roof and ate through walls as a man jumped from a second-floor window.
McIntosh thought of the young woman and the little boy, the three babies who lived in the apartment next door, and the kind man across the hall she often saw walking his dog. McIntosh called for help. Then she phoned her daughter, who, like her, is a retired nurse.
“You need to get over here,” she said.
Dozens of neighbors dialed 911, flooding the county dispatch center with pleas for help.
“Where is the fire department at?” one caller shouted over a chorus of screams and wailing.
“They’re coming ma’am,” the dispatcher replied,
The caller’s voice trembled. “Tell them to hurry.”
Watching Sammy A few miles away, Nancy Edwards was at work in the kitchen of a North Charleston hotel. She had no inkling of the chaos unfolding at the apartment complex where her 4-year-old grandson was spending the day.
Edwards watched young Sammy as often as her schedule allowed, but this day she had to work. Unlike his older sister, Sammy was too young for school. And his mom, Edwards’ daughter, Sharon Garbe, needed help with child care as she pursued a degree at a local technical college.
Edwards affectionately called Sammy her little devil. He was a rough-and-tumble kid, always into something. Take your eyes off him, and he would duck behind a bush or pedal his “big-boy” bike down the road.
He recently graduated to a full-size bicycle and he still wiped out at times. But Sammy would just dust himself off, get a bandage for his skinned knee and go back at it.
When Edwards couldn’t watch Sammy, her daughter often turned to her cousin, Morgan Abernathy, who lived in Pine Harbour. Morgan saw baby-sitting as a way to earn cash; her mother was the only one in the family who worked a full-time job, as manager of a dollar store.
Morgan, 19, had dropped out of Cane Bay High School but aimed to return and complete her final year. After graduation, she envisioned college and a career in X-ray technology or veterinary medicine.
Marriage also was in her plans. She recently became engaged to her boyfriend of six years, Michael Still. He worshipped the ground she walked on.
Morgan was a country girl who took after her grandmother, the family’s tougher-than-nails former matriarch. She swam in muddy rivers, caught chubby catfish longer than her legs and took in wild critters as pets: snakes, rats, hermit crabs, snails. She preferred the ugliest she could find.
She was part hippie, part punk. She wore clothes adorned with peace symbols or skulls and crossbones. She wore dark eyeliner and bleach-blond hair. And her most recent pet was a Chihuahua mix, an ankle-biter she named “Ozzy” after the heavy-metal rocker.
Sammy was her soft spot. Since the boy’s birth, Morgan watched him sporadically and visited him frequently. Family pictures show her placing a sailor’s hat on his head as an infant, cuddling with him on a couch as a toddler.
So when her cousin was in need that Thursday, Morgan gladly agreed to watch Sammy at the apartment she shared with her parents, Alberta Pierson and Shonni Abernathy.
Troubled lives Shonni Abernathy, who goes by “Scooter,” is a burly man with a background in construction, a love of fishing and a criminal rap sheet eight pages long.
Abernathy, 39, had been busted for burglary, passing bad checks, stealing and indulging in crack cocaine and crystal meth, records show. He also had been investigated in 2009 after a young boy he had been baby-sitting ended up in a hospital emergency room with cocaine in his system.
That boy was Sammy, who as a toddler ate coke residue off a table in Abernathy’s home, relatives said. No charges were filed, but the state Department of Social Services was called in.
Abernathy most recently spent four months in jail on a meth charge from Dorchester County. He got out in April, but was still on probation from an earlier drug arrest. He was supposed to undergo random drug tests and stay out of trouble.
On this Thursday, he was hanging out at the Goose Creek apartment with Jerry McCabe, a 33-year-old man Abernathy had been arrested with in 2009 after deputies reportedly spotted the pair hustling through the woods with a cooler full of meth gear.
McCabe, a wiry, illustrated man with long, stringy bangs, shared Abernathy’s struggles with substance abuse and had a lengthy criminal resume of his own, with convictions for burglary and grand larceny.
In 2010, McCabe caused a stir after police said he threatened officers with a knife and tried to strangle himself with a cruiser’s seat belt during an alcohol- and drug-fueled rage at his mother’s Moncks Corner home. He calmed down only after officers shot him twice with a stun gun.
A star and a teardrop are tattooed below his eyes. Words inked into his neck say, “I shall fear no man but God for he is my father.” Tattooed on his eyelids: “God’s Son.”
Through the early morning hours of May 31, the pair had been brewing up fresh batches of meth in the apartment using camp fuel, muriatic acid, lithium, sodium hydroxide, cans, glassware and other provisions, affidavits stated.
The homegrown meth lab was still active when Sammy arrived, investigators said. They were all gathered in the apartment, along with Morgan’s boyfriend, when a loud pop sounded in the building shortly after noon.
The sound was enough to rouse neighbor Nichole Amerson from a nap. She stepped into the hall and saw some men emerge from an apartment, coughing as smoke filled the air. Behind them, she could see flames.
The kindly veteran Just down the hall, 69-year-old Joseph Raeth sat inside his apartment. Neighbors knew him as a kind, quiet man who passed time reading books and walking his beloved retriever, Princess.
Raeth had retired from the Air Force after a 25-year career, during which he served a tour in Vietnam. He kept a shadow box on a shelf in his apartment with two American flags, military insignia and medals from his service.
Raeth moved to the Lowcountry as boy from San Diego, where his dad was stationed as a Navy sailor. He became one of the first two altar boys at Divine Redeemer Catholic Church when the parish was founded in 1950s, and he still spent much of his time at the Hanahan church.
Its priest, the Rev. Edward Fitzgerald, would frequently peer through a window and see Raeth’s car parked outside; he was there to pray.
After hanging up his uniform in the mid-1990s, Raeth tutored students in math and computer science at Trident Technical College. He also earned an associate’s degree in computer technology, adding to the math and history degrees he received before joining the military.
At home, he seemed unwilling to draw attention to himself. If any of his neighbors in the apartment complex annoyed him, he wouldn’t have said anything. He just wasn’t the complaining type.
A chemical smell Across the street, McIntosh, the retired nurse, grew alarmed as she saw smoke gush from the building.
A boom sounded and the windows blew out of the corner apartment directly across from her. “It just exploded.”
As smoke and flames boiled from the opening, a man emerged and leaped to the ground. He landed hard, and his legs collapsed beneath him. He grabbed his right knee as if it were broken.
Ignoring her arthritis, McIntosh hustled across the road and helped the injured man to safety. He collapsed on the ground, his breathing ragged and his face peppered with shards of glass.
She looked in his eyes and saw the dilated pupils she often encountered in the emergency room when someone came in high on drugs.
The air smelled like chemicals and rotten eggs as yellow smoke swirled in the air.
Another man stumbled around as if he were in a daze. “I started that fire,” he said.
Fast-moving blaze A mile and a half to the northwest, at the headquarters of the Goose Creek Rural Fire Department, a high-pitched tone rang out. A voice squawked: Flames are visible at an apartment complex, and someone is still inside.
It was 12:25 p.m. In the 40 seconds they took to slip into their suits and ready their engines, firefighters looked down Red Bank Road and saw a plume of smoke.
Crews from the mostly volunteer agency realized they couldn’t handle the job alone, and they called four other departments for help.
Traffic was heavy, and it took fire trucks two minutes and 40 seconds to reach the gated complex.
In that time, the fire broke through the ceiling of the unit where it started and percolated into the common attic above the apartments. The building had no fire walls to slow the flames, because such features weren’t required when it was constructed in 1976.
The blaze soon flashed over, and fire swallowed the attic. Portions of the second floor collapsed into the first.
Firefighters saw flames streaming from the rooftop. A stairwell leading to the second floor was engulfed. Fire broke through the windows.
Chris Beaulieu ran outside his neighboring apartment building when he saw the crowds. One of the men who jumped from the burning building asked to use Beaulieu’s cellphone to call his wife. The man dialed and said in a shaky voice: “The children are dead.”
Nearby, a gaggle of onlookers stood in rapt attention as they recorded video of the building’s demise on their smartphones. When the wind shifted in their direction, the fire’s searing heat seemed to take their breath away as firefighters battled on.
Others in the crowd went after Morgan’s boyfriend, Michael Still, after they spotted him walking around with burn marks on his face. One woman heard him say, “I just left them in there.” A small mob got the idea that he was responsible for the blaze and roughed him up.
Deputies grabbed Still and put him in the back of a cruiser for his own safety as rumors started spreading that the fire had been started by a meth lab.
Fire crews didn’t know that the smoke might contain fumes from the bottles of chemicals being incinerated in one apartment. They just knew someone was trapped, and they wanted to get inside.
They tried, but the fire beat them back. There was no way in, no way out. They resigned themselves to helping those already outside, including a woman who had leaped from a window.
Thirty minutes after their arrival, four firefighters finally entered a stairwell. It was another two hours, 21 minutes before the first body was found inside the building’s charred shell.
Grim news Sammy’s grandmother arrived at the complex shortly after 3 p.m. and found police cruisers and fire trucks blocking the entrance. “Go to the hospital,” the officers told her.
She hurried off, worried about Sammy and Morgan. It would be several more hours before the family learned that both were dead.
Still told deputies he heard Morgan screaming as he ran from the building. Her family later learned that witnesses saw her clutching Sammy in her arms as she tried to find a way out of the burning apartment.
Someone saw Morgan with her leg dangling from the window, but she never jumped. The fire got them both before she found another avenue of escape.
Rescue crews also found Raeth’s body in the ruins, near a bedroom window.
His apartment was a charred ruin, but his glass shadow box lay nearly unscathed. The wooden frame didn’t burn. The inside was smoky, but his military medals were intact.
The remnants of dozens of other people’s lives lay mingled in piles of soggy, charred debris on the ground. A child’s bicycle. A Spider-Man glove. An old shoe. An ash-covered bedsheet.
In all, the blaze left 46 people homeless. “Everything happened so fast,” said Amerson, the tenant who woke to the fire. “We lost everything. We have nothing.”
Grief, justice A chain link fence now surrounds the scorched remains of the building. The top floor is mostly gone, with charred timber poking into the air, and strips of warped siding dangle in the wind. Entry to the ruins is forbidden, though some stuffed animals and flowers have been jammed in the fence in memorial to those who died.
Sammy was the first to be buried, on Monday. The following day, his shell-shocked relatives sat on the porch of his grandmother’s home, trying to make sense of things as heavy rain pounded the roof overhead.
Inside, a shrine of sorts stood in the corner. Photos of Sammy at Carowinds amusement park, at the zoo in Columbia, mugging with family members.
Sammy’s 9-year-old sister, Kelsie, sat in the lap of an uncle, watching the group with curiosity. She had been told of Sammy’s death, of course. But it didn’t seem real, like he might appear again at any time.
“It’s been just like a nightmare,” Nancy Edwards said. “I don’t know where we go from here. I’ve never been through anything like this before.”
The following day, investigators arrested Scooter Abernathy, just hours before his daughter was to be buried. They hauled McCabe in as well, and both men face drug charges in connection with the meth lab.
At a bail hearing, investigators revealed that Abernathy also is accused of exposing his other daughter, 12-year-old Maegan, to meth-making at home.
The family got more bad news on Friday when deputies charged Still and Morgan’s mother in connection with the meth lab.
Authorities have not yet determined what started the fire, but most folks at Pine Harbour remain convinced that the meth lab was behind the blaze. Their anger remains palpable, and several community members took umbrage at Morgan’s and Sammy’s families asking for donations to pay for their funerals.
Morgan is buried next to her grandmother, and Sammy lies at her feet. Raeth is buried elsewhere in the same cemetery, Carolina Memorial Park.
Raeth’s siblings have exchanged condolences with Morgan’s and Sammy’s families. Morgan’s uncle, 31-year-old Allen Pierson of Ladson, and Raeth’s sister even hugged when they met at the cemetery.
But a hint of anger and bewilderment also lingers. How, Raeth’s relatives wonder, could such a trusting and caring person survive fiery battlefields only to die so horribly at his own home?
“I’ve been praying for grace not to fall into this cycle of hate and revenge,” said his brother, Peter Raeth of Beavercreek, Ohio. “But if I’m upset at anything, I’m upset at the criminal mentality. I’m upset at the carelessness and disregard for other lives.”
Pierson apologized to the 46 people who lost their homes in the blaze. To help, he donated nine 30-gallon trash bags full of clothing and shoes to the American Red Cross. And he said he wants justice for whoever contributed to the fire, whether that person is a family member or not.