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When Hugo struck, Fort Mill lost its Santa Claus and a family lost its father

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Hugo: 30 years later

Three decades have passed since the killer storm, Hurricane Hugo, cut a path of destruction through South Carolina and beyond.

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The little town of Fort Mill was 200 miles away from where Hurricane Hugo made landfall — and still was ripped apart by the storm.

Residents of the York County town, just south of Charlotte, awoke to downed trees, damaged homes and the steel frame of billboards twisted like pretzels.

The morning after the storm, Robert Winecoff, 30, surveyed the damage around his parent’s home, thinking the worst was over.

“Dad isn’t going to be happy about that,” he thought to himself, noticing a giant pine tree had fallen, crushing a line of children’s bikes next to his father’s workshop. His father, Samuel Winecoff, collected old bikes throughout the year from neighbors and friends, then fixed them up and gave them to needy Fort Mill kids each Christmas.

It was his annual tradition along with playing Santa Claus in Fort Mill’s annual parade.

“Back then, Fort Mill was like Mayberry (on the Andy Griffith Show.) And everybody knew my dad — the town’s Santa Claus,” Robert Winecoff recently told The State.

As his son surveyed the storm’s damage, Samuel Winecoff, 58, was just down the street, repairing damaged power lines. It was his 21st year with Duke Power, working as a lineman.

“Dad always said it was dangerous work. He always told me, ‘Make sure you get a good education and learn something where you could make a good living (in a job that is not) so dangerous,’” said Robert Winecoff, now 60, who heeded his dad’s advice and works as a manager at a Spartanburg car dealership.

His father repeated a similar refrain to his three other children and scores of foster children that he and his wife, Shirley, cared for through the years.

But that day, at 5:45 p.m., the family’s worst fear was realized. Samuel Winecoff was electrocuted as he worked his 16th hour of the day, trying to restore power to Fort Mill. He was one of at least 26 South Carolinians killed by the storm.

“It’s still hard to believe he’s gone,” Robert Winecoff recently said. “They don’t build them like Daddy anymore.”

Thirty years later, Christmas is still hard to get through, said his daughter, Jackie Elms, 63. So is spring when it’s time to plant a vegetable garden — one of her father’s favorite pastimes along with playing baseball.

But his legacy lives on, she added.

Many of the children he taught Sunday School at Independent Bible Baptist Church are now leaders in the area.

And his grandson, Braxton Elms, a baseball player at Lewisville High School in Chester County, looks exactly like him.

“It gives me goose bump to watch him play,” said Elms, 63. “It’s like dad is standing at that plate.”

“He still lives.”