At 06:38 Tuesday morning 27-Februaury, Colleton County (SC) 9-1-1 received a report of a fire in the gym of the former Cottageville School located at 72 Salley Ackerman Drive in the Town of Cottageville. The array of four former school buildings makes up the Cottageville Municipal Complex. The two older brick veneer buildings which were constructed in the 1930s, consisted of a 10,200 square foot two-story gym and a 200’ long, 11,500 square foot adjacent main school building which was 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 are used as municipal offices, the police dept, and a public library. A construction crew who was arriving to work constructing a town park, noticed smoke coming from the gym. Upon inspection, they found flames coming from the rear windows on the first and second floors.
Colleton County Fire-Rescue Engine 9, stationed a mile away, arrived within minutes to find the building heavily involved, with flames and heavy smoke coming from most of the building. They requested a second alarm and deployed multiple handlines to the structure. The fire was already impinging on the large classroom building which only had a few feet of separation by a covered breezeway. Battalion Chief Feather arrived 10 minutes later in Car 118 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 to 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 refill at pressurized hydrants at the airport industrial park near Walterboro, 12 miles away. Engine 6 setup a fill site on Whites Ave two miles away and Engine 35 setup a fill site at the sand pits off of Peirce Road four miles from the scene. Drop tanks were used in front of the gym (Alpha Side) to supply Engine 2 and Ladder 6. A second drop tank was used on the east (Charlie) side of the building to supply Engine 27 and Ladder 19. A third drop tank was used on Salley Ackerman Drive to supply Engine 9. Battalion Chief Dalton and Firefighter-Paramedic Robert Gregory coordinated water supply with 17 Colleton tenders shuttling water from the three locations for approximately seven hours. Cottageville Police units and sheriff’s deputies blocked off roads leading to the scene, to keep lanes open for the tenders. One lane of Cottageville Hwy (US 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. Command was transferred to Deputy Chief Greene. B/C Feather was moved to Alpha Operations and B/C Sheffield was assigned to Charlie Operations. Crews on the east (Charlie) side of the fire buildings protected exposures and saved the two municipal office buildings. One building did suffer heat damage to the windows and siding.
Both fire buildings were a total loss, including all of the stored materials, the 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 in for safety concerns. The fire did spread to a wooded area behind the school and a State Forestry Commission Tractor responded to cut a fire line around the back of the building. The woods fire was quickly contained. Due to the structure being a municipal building, South Carolina State Police arson investigators were brought in to investigate the cause of the fire. Five investigators and an arson dog worked at the scene for six hours. Cottageville Mayor Tim Grimsley, several municipal leaders and employees were on the scene for the duration of the event. The town and many citizens brought food and drinks to firefighters and law enforcement officers working the fire. Fire units were cleared up from the fire by 17:00. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. One firefighter suffered heat exhaustion and was treated at the scene. He did not require transportation to the hospital. Deputy Chief Greene, B/C Dalton, B/C Jones, and Chief McRoy operated the Command Post.