Investigators continued to sift through the charred remains of an apartment building Sunday where five people died the previous day.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the State Law Enforcement Division assisted the Spartanburg County Fire Investigation Team and Whitney Fire Department in the investigation of the deadly blaze at Southern Pines Apartments on Bryant Road.
Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger was working Sunday evening to identify the victims, believed to be two adults and three children under age 18. He said he will likely need dental records to identify them, and it was difficult getting that information on a weekend.
There were at least seven fatalities as a result of fire in South Carolina over the weekend. An infant died in a fire overnight Friday near North Main Street, and a man died Saturday in Elloree.
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“Worse-case scenario” is how Whitney Fire Chief Shawn Petras described his thoughts upon receiving the call about an apartment fire at night, with people trapped inside their homes.
“Everyone’s sleeping,” Petras said. “You hope the smoke detectors are working.”
Petras said fire departments were called to the blaze at about 12:30 a.m. Saturday. The fire appeared to have started in a first-story apartment, burned into the apartment above and then ripped through the attic quickly. When the Whitney Fire Department arrived, the first- and second-story apartments on the right side of the building were engulfed in fire.
About 50 firefighters fought the blaze from Whitney, Hilltop, Drayton, Cherokee Springs and Spartanburg city fire departments. One firefighter received a minor injury when something from the second floor swung down and hit him on the backs of his legs, Petras said.
Whitney firefighters arrived to find about a dozen sheriff’s deputies on scene, Petras said. Most residents escaped the burning building, but sheriff’s deputies assisted a man in a wheelchair in getting to a safe place in the parking lot.
“We knocked on all doors,” Petras said. “But I give very big props to the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s department helped out tremendously and did a heck of a job.”
A man was injured as he tried to re-enter his first-floor apartment to save his children, Petras said. He, along with a woman from the apartment, and two children were taken to Spartanburg Medical Center. Two other children died in the apartment, Petras said.
There was some confusion in accounting for all the families who lived in the building. Apartment management first told firefighters that all families had been accounted for, but hours later, told Petras that one family, in the second floor apartment above the unit where the children died, was missing. Firefighters then discovered the three additional victims. Their apartment had collapsed to the first floor, Petras said.
The apartment complex was quiet Sunday afternoon, as insurance inspectors looked through the building, still surrounded by yellow sheriff’s office tape. The worst of the damaged apartments on the building’s right side were little more than charred and splintered wood. Piles of collapsed brick had fallen to the ground. The roof was gone on all eight of the two-story apartments. As a reminder of the upcoming holiday, a fabric Santa Claus still hung, untouched by the fire, in a sliding glass door window at one apartment on the first floor.
Because the building had been built in 1974, before stricter building codes, there were no firewalls between units, and the attic was open from one end of the structure to the other. That allowed the fire to spread quickly, Petras said.
“There are no sprinklers in these buildings,” Petras said. “There is a common attic and a fire just takes off. Every apartment there is supposed to have a smoke alarm, and when we arrived, there were smoke alarms sounding.”
Several pairs of discarded rubber gloves from emergency workers littered the ground in front of the damaged building. Petras said four apartments on the right side were destroyed, with no salvageable personal belongings. All the other apartments received heavy water and smoke damage.
Three people died in fatal fires at the apartment complex, formerly known as Wildwood, in 2008, Petras said. In March 2008, a building was completely destroyed by fire, killing one. Four months later, a mother and child died in a fire. Both were cooking fires, Petras said.
Kimberly Shell, community executive for the local Red Cross, said volunteers will be at Southern Pines on Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to assist victims.
“Tomorrow’s not going to be the last day,” Shell said Sunday. “We’ll be working with these people for a while.”
Seven families, including 16 adults and four children, were displaced by the fire. For those who would like to assist the Red Cross, monetary donations are the most helpful.
“We’re not able to handle clothes or furniture,” Shell said. “Cash is the best thing, which we use to give clients prepaid debit cards.”
Area residents have already dropped off money, gift cards, clothing, small appliances, cookware and toys for fire victims at the Whitney Fire Station, 220 Bryant Road.
“Anything would be greatly appreciated,” said Capt. Cody Pucetas, who is glad to see the donations.
“It being almost Christmas, it weighs heavy on people’s hearts,” he said.