Cottageville fire battle a massive effort | News | The Press and Standard

by | March 8, 2018 5:00 am

Last Updated: March 7, 2018 at 8:57 am

Fire investigators from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division are still working on their attempt to determine a cause of the Feb. 27 fire that destroyed two of the main buildings of the former Cottageville Elementary School complex.
Colleton County Fire-Rescue Chief Barry McRoy said since the gymnasium building and the sprawling one-story classroom building are owned by Cottageville town government, SLED fire investigators handled the fire investigation.
The array of four former school buildings at 72 Salley Ackerman Drive make up the Cottageville Municipal Complex.
The flames destroyed the two older brick-veneer buildings, which were constructed in the 1930s: the 10,200-square-foot two-story gym and an 11,500-square-foot main school building once used as classrooms.
Both buildings have been vacant for nearly a decade and were used for storage by the town.
Two other smaller, more modern buildings that were once part of the school complex are now used as municipal offices: the police department and a public library.
Five SLED investigators dispatched to the scene brought along an arson dog to aid in the investigation. Arson dogs are trained to search for the smell from any accelerants at a fire scene, much like drug dogs are trained to use their sense of smell to search for drugs and alert their companion of their presence.
The SLED investigators worked the massive fire scene for six hours.
Although SLED investigators are still preparing their report, McRoy said the arson dog did not signal any presence of any accelerants at the scene.
Although the report is not finished, McRoy added, the current belief is that the fire began at the rear of the two-story tall gym building near where the electrical supply entered the building.
McRoy said that the SLED investigators have finished their work at the fire scene and have relinquished control of the scene to the town.
The unoccupied buildings are covered by the town’s insurance and town officials have been in contact with an adjuster.
An attempt to contact Cottageville Mayor Tim Grimsley about the town’s next steps in dealing with the aftermath of the fire were unsuccessful.
The fire was discovered by a crew working on the construction of the Capital Project Sales Tax-funded $290,000 recreation project on the grounds of the complex, who saw smoke coming from the gym.
Upon inspection, they found flames coming from the rear windows and called the dispatch center to report the blaze Feb. 27 at 6:38 a.m.
The first firefighters on the scene, coming from a fire station about a mile from the fire, found gym heavily involved with flames and heavy smoke coming from most of the building.
They requested a second alarm and deployed multiple hand lines to the structure. McRoy said the flames from the gym were already impinging on the large classroom building, separated only a few feet from the gym by a covered breezeway.
Battalion Chief Scott Feather arrived 10 minutes later and assumed command of the fire. He requested a third alarm and noted the turbine vents along the length of the roof of the classroom building had already begun to melt and were emitting heavily-charged black smoke.
Firefighters deployed lines into the classroom building, but the ceilings on the north end of the building were already beginning to fail with fire dropping into the interior of the building.
Firefighters were evacuated from the inside of the structure as flames began to run the roof-line. The fire spread quickly through the old wooden structure.
The rural Cottageville community does not have a water system, so three separate water shuttle operations were initiated. Two ponds equipped with dry fire hydrants were utilized in the Cottageville area and one group of tenders was sent to the Airport Industrial Park near Walterboro to refill. One fire engine set up a fill site on Whites Avenue and a second engine set up a fill site at the sand pits off of Peirce Road.
Drop tanks were set up in front of the gym to supply two fire-rescue vehicles, an engine and a ladder truck.
A second drop tank was used on the east side of the building to supply an engine and ladder truck.
A third drop tank was used on Salley Ackerman Drive to supply another engine pouring water on the blaze.
Battalion Chief Brent Dalton and Firefighter-Paramedic Robert Gregory coordinated water supply with 17 Colleton tenders shuttling water from the three locations.
Cottageville police units and Colleton County sheriff’s deputies blocked off roads leading to the scene to keep lanes open for the tenders. One lane of Cottageville Highway (U.S. Hwy 17-A) was used as a staging area for tenders.
As the water supply needs increased, a fourth alarm for additional tenders was issued.
Crews on the east side of the burning buildings protected exposures and saved the two municipal office buildings, though one building did suffer heat damage to the windows.
Both the gym and classroom building were a total loss, including all of the stored materials: municipal Christmas and Halloween decorations, lawn maintenance equipment and police equipment.
A contractor with a large track hoe was brought in during the afternoon to remove debris to allow firefighters to complete overhaul of the buildings. The remaining brick veneer walls were pushed down due to safety concerns.
Seventy-seven Colleton County firefighters responded to the incident, which McRoy said was one of the largest fires the department has had to battle.
One firefighter suffered heat exhaustion and was treated at the scene, but did not require transportation to the hospital.
McRoy, Deputy Chief David Greene and Battalion Chiefs Brent Dalton and Chris Jones operated the command posts.
Six fire engines, 17 tenders, two ladder trucks, one rescue truck, four ambulances, three brush trucks and one mechanic vehicle were sent to the blaze.
The flames spread to a wooded area behind the complex and a South Carolina Forestry Commission tractor responded to cut a fire line around the back of the building. The woods fire was quickly contained.
McRoy said Mayor Grimsley, along with several other municipal leaders and employees, were on the scene for the duration of the fire and cleanup.
The town officials and many citizens brought food and drinks to firefighters and law enforcement officers working the fire.
Fire units were cleared from the fire scene at approximately 5 p.m.

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