City leaders address falling facades, fire investigation and rumors
Today, one week after the monstrous fire that destroyed seven buildings and several businesses and apartments in the 700 block of Front Street, many of those impacted are starting to figure out what they will do next.
It was hoped some of the façades of the burned buildings could be saved for historical purposes, but early Sunday the fronts of Zest Restaurant and Doodlebugs crashed to the ground.
Georgetown City Administrator Chris Carter said the falling of the façades was not unexpected.
“I don't think anyone was surprised,” Carter said, adding there was very little support behind the storefronts after the fire.
The remaining unsupported façade belongs to the former Buzz's Roost building.
Carter said he had been hoping the historic façades could be saved but the damage was too extensive.
Now, Carter says the remaining unsupported façades are unsafe but the city cannot remove them without going through the Architectural Review Board.
However, the state fire marshall has the authority to order them removed without ARB approval if they are deemed to be unsafe.
Carter said the city is asking the state fire marshall to make a determination.
He also said asbestos testing has taken place and so far no levels of concern have been detected.
What will happen with the historic bricks is not a city decision. Some have said they feel the bricks should be sold. Members of the Charleston Historical Preservation Society were on Front Street Monday sifting through the debris seeing if any of it is useful for their projects.
Carter said the bricks belong to the owners of each of the buildings and they will have to decide what to do with them.
Even though a week has passed, investigators with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives still have not released a probable cause.
One theory points to debris that caught fire behind the Limpin' Jane's tap room, a favorite watering hole.
At least 10 businesses were affected and 130 people put out of work. The recovery cost is expected to go into the millions.
Fire Chief Joey Tanner said Friday it is too early to predict what will be done in terms of preventing such a fire in the future but that “everything, now, is on the table.”
Responding to rumors
The fire was still raging Wednesday when rumors and speculation began flying. Some people were saying it took an unusual amount of time to begin fighting the fire and others were saying the flames were able to spread so quickly because of inadequate water pressure.
The Georgetown Times asked city officials about the main rumors that have been talked about on the streets and on social media.
• One rumor was that the city may be in danger of being sued because fire inspectors did not enforce sprinkler codes.
Carter: First, not all commercial buildings are required under the State Fire Code to be sprinkled. Retrofitting a building with sprinklers is not required until either one of three conditions is met: 1:) the occupant load is designed so that an existing building (or of course a “new” building) can house 200 occupants. 2): The commercial building is enlarged to 12,00 square feet or greater. (Commercial use only) or 3:) the type of occupancy substantially changes. For instance the Maritime Museum was transformed from a retail use to a museum occupancy. Since the area was open and could allow congregation of 200 people fire sprinklers were required.
Carter said none of the buildings destroyed met the three criteria. He also said while a sprinkler system is not always a requirement, it is encouraged.
“I think for some time this incident can be pointed to as a reason for doing so.”
• There was a rumor that it took a long time for firefighters to start putting water on the blaze after they arrived on the scene because they were waiting for electric service to be disconnected.
Carter: The electrical service was discontinued for several buildings in that block as a safety precaution after the fire began to be fought. To be honest electrical service usually is not disrupted until after the fire is extinguished. We had the capability to do it WHILE the fire was being fought."
More specifically, the Electric Department received a call at 5:30 a.m. about the fire. The transformer bank at Francis Marion Park was de-energized at 6:10 a.m., cutting power off to all the buildings except the one formerly occupied by Limpin' Jane's. The entire block was de-energized at 6:20 a.m.
Water was being put on the fire by 5:30 a.m.
Tanner told the Post and Courier Friday one firefighter put water on the inferno and within moments he was overcome and the front end of the building exploded outward onto Front Street.
Some firefighters who arrived first on the scene were sent to awaken, alert or rescue an undetermined number of people living in apartments above the store fronts.
Georgetown also has a small fireboat that was put into action. It was later aided by a fire boat from North Charleston.
• There was also talk that low water pressure was a problem for firefighters.
Carter: Neither of the two elevated tanks ran out of water, nor did the clearwell (finished water storage at the plant) run low.
The average daily treatment at the plant is 1.25 million gallons per day. The water plant treated and pushed into the distribution system almost 2.4 million gallons on the day of the fire. That is nearly double the normal daily amount.
The pressure in the system never got below 35.7 psi which is well above the minimum required 20 psi.
If there were low pressures in that area of the town, keep in mind there were two or three large fire trucks pulling water out of the system as well as three or more fire hoses hooked to hydrants in the area.
The water was actually being pulled out of the system by the fire truck pumps which may have led to lower pressures in the homes in the area.
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