Gov. Nikki Haley stood Thursday morning with her arm wrapped around Jeanette Ard, a business owner and Georgetown City Councilwoman, and pledged her support for the rebuilding of the Front Street businesses destroyed by fire a day earlier.
Ard, who owned Colonial Floral Fascination and lived above it, said her new motto is “Yes we will” regarding the rebuilding of seven buildings decimated by a fire that was first reported at 5:23 a.m. Wednesday.
Haley walked around the still smoking debris and then told about 100 residents, who gathered near for a press conference, that “Georgetown is now open for business.”
“I want people to visit Georgetown. . . . I want them to see the treasure and history we have in this community. Because these are strong people and this is a strong community and we are a strong state. And we are going to step up for Georgetown like they’ve never seen and we’re going to do for the people of Georgetown and it starts today,” Haley said Thursday. “Let’s show Georgetown we know they’re survivors.”
Fire investigators from the State Law Enforcement Division, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, Georgetown police and fire departments and other agencies spent Thursday sifting through the rubble, some of which was removed from the scene, in an effort to find out what caused the blaze.
“We’re going to start to take some things out. This is part of the investigation process. It is not part of the demolition process. If anything comes down today it’s for the safety of the investigators,” Georgetown Police Chief Paul Gardner said. “We’re going to find the source and origin of this fire.”
It is unclear how long the investigation may take before officials release more details about what caused the blaze.
On Wednesday, City Councilman Paige Sawyer said he was in that area on his usual morning walk when he saw a plastic bag on fire on the Harborwalk boardwalk, then soon afterward noticed flames spreading up a wooden wall. He said he called firefighters, just before he tried to wake people in the buildings the flames were approaching.
Georgetown Fire Chief Joey Tanner said fire crews were on the scene within minutes of being called and the first fire engine went to the Harborwalk area and tried to douse the flames.
But the fire grew too quickly too fast and that crew had to retreat. Other crews that arrived soon after began searching for people trapped in the buildings, Tanner said.
“I said we would be lucky if we could save anything this side of the waterway. We lost seven buildings, but we saved the rest of the city. That’s a testament to the firefighters,” Tanner said. “At 5:30 [Wednesday] morning Georgetown’s nightmare became a reality. We’ve all thought about it. We’ve all worried about it.”
The blaze was deemed under control by 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, but hot spots continued to burn Thursday as white smoke trickled from the rubble.
Three firefighters and a police officer suffered minor injuries when one of two explosions occurred during the blaze. They were standing in front of Buzz’s Roost when one explosion occurred and the façade came crashing down, Tanner said.
“They’re OK and they’re going to be OK,” Tanner said.
Officials said Thursday afternoon they plan to reopen the sidewalks and access to businesses near the 700 block of the city.
But it was unclear when the Harborwalk would reopen because of concerns of structural damage caused by the fire, Gardner said. If deemed safe, that portion of the Harborwalk will reopen this week as well, he said.
Georgetown County’s Emergency Management Director Sam Hodge said crews will work to stabilize the front of the buildings before any demolition occurs.
“It’s important that we save the front and the face of Georgetown’s Front Street,” Hodge said. “We can build better and bigger behind it and still keep it Georgetown.”
Officials estimated that 130 employees who worked in the 10 businesses damaged by the fire were impacted. And many of the owners of those businesses lived above them.
Ard said she moved her florist shop to the location in 1989 as part of an investment in revitalizing the downtown and she will return.
“I lost everything in the fire. I lived there. I worked there. I loved being there. That was my home, so I lost my home and I lost my business,” Ard said.
Hugging Ard, Haley said state officials will do what they can to help the city and residents rebuild. Haley also asked residents from across the state to donate to a fund set up for the community called Front Street Fire Relief Fund at any First Citizen Bank branch in the state.
“We’re going to see Georgetown strong again and we’re going to get her back what she needs,” Haley said. “This is devastating for Georgetown, this is tragic for South Carolina. This is horrible to look at.”
Haley called Georgetown “a bright spot” in the state, but in need of help at the moment.
“These were small businesses. These were mom and pops that got burned. These were people that lived upstairs. . . . They don’t have anything. They lost it all overnight. Not just their business, they lost their home at the same time,” Haley said. “When you look at that, this is the time where I’m going to ask South Carolina to step up like they have never stepped up before. Our neighbors in Georgetown need us. The neighbors across the state of South Carolina need to come through.”