2011-03-11 / Front Page

Investigators sift through rubble

By TIM GULLA Ledger Staff Writer tim@gaffneyledger.com


Investigators on Thursday continued to examine the scene and sift through the rubble of a Wednesday morning fire that destroyed the Cherokee Boarding House on Cherokee Avenue. A total of 33 people were displaced by the fire but there were no fatalities. Tending to the needs of so many fire victims is costing the American Red Cross practically every penny raised by the local Red Cross chapter during last week's Taste of Cherokee fundraiser. 
(Ledger photo / TIM GULLA) Investigators on Thursday continued to examine the scene and sift through the rubble of a Wednesday morning fire that destroyed the Cherokee Boarding House on Cherokee Avenue. A total of 33 people were displaced by the fire but there were no fatalities. Tending to the needs of so many fire victims is costing the American Red Cross practically every penny raised by the local Red Cross chapter during last week's Taste of Cherokee fundraiser. (Ledger photo / TIM GULLA) As fire investigators continued to sift through the rubble for answers Thursday, interviews continued with each of the residents of the Cherokee Boarding House in the wake of an early Wednesday fire that officials have deemed suspicious.

Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller said the Cherokee County Fire Investigation Team saw some irregularities at the scene so his office committed a detective and crime scene investigators to the investigation. SLED fire investigators also have joined the probe.


Investigators remained at the scene Thursday morning looking for clues into the cause of Wednesday morning's boarding house fire. Officials declined to talk about the evidence they collected. 
(Ledger photo / TIM GULLA) Investigators remained at the scene Thursday morning looking for clues into the cause of Wednesday morning's boarding house fire. Officials declined to talk about the evidence they collected. (Ledger photo / TIM GULLA) “We’re investigating it as a possibly intentionally set fire,” confirmed Gaffney Fire Chief Nathan Ellis. “That’s because we have reason to believe it was an intentionally set fire.”

Ellis said evidence has been collected and sent for testing, though he could not discuss any details at this time.

Investigators worked until late Wednesday night and deputies stayed at the scene, which remained roped off by police and fire department tape, throughout the night. They wrapped up at the scene at about 4 p.m. Thursday, though interviews with residents and witnesses remain ongoing.

Firefighters were alerted to the fire at the boarding house at 1301 Cherokee Ave. at 5:45 a.m. Wednesday and the first arriving authorities came upon a chaotic scene as residents were trying to make their way to safety. At the same time, 9-1-1 dispatchers were receiving reports of entrapment from a disabled man calling from inside the building.

Two sheriff’s deputies, Nick Federico and J.B. Peterson, were credited with pulling the disabled man from the window of his ground-floor room, which was quickly filling up with suffocating back smoke.

At the back of the boarding house, several residents made their escape using bed sheets and a blanket tied together as a rope. At the front of the boarding house, two second-floor residents reportedly had to jump to safety.

A total of five fire departments responded to the blaze, which lit up the dark sky in an orange glow and sent the smell of smoke traveling for miles.

While five people suffered injuries — almost all of them minor — no lives were lost, a fact Ellis was glad to report.

“This could have been a big tragedy for our community,” he said. “The potential was there for this to be a multi-casualty incident. The fact there were only five minor injuries is really a miracle. It also speaks well to those people who were willing to wake up their neighbors, and do whatever they could to help their neighbors. Those people who live there owe a little thanks and appreciation to one another for everybody making it out.”

As of Thursday, the American Red Cross was tending to the needs of 33 occupants of the boarding house, all of whom lost everything. Highlighting the extent of the loss, basically every penny raised by the local Red Cross chapter during last week’s Taste of Cherokee fundraiser — its primary fundraiser — will be spent on response to just this one fire.

Shellie Wylie of the Red Cross, who ironically is having to step down from her post today due to budget constraints at the charitable organization, estimated that providing basic necessities including temporary housing assistance will cost the Red Cross about $15,000.

“We’ve committed just over $11,000 in direct assistance,” she said. “That does not include first months rent.”

Basic necessities include things like food, clothing, temporary shel- ter and replacement of lost medicines. Getting the boarding house occupants set up in new apartments is expected to cost $3,000 to $5,000. Landlord verification forms were issued to the fire victims Thursday and officials expected the fire victims to begin moving out of the shelter by today.

When the Red Cross opened an emergency shelter for the fire victims at Cherokee Avenue Baptist Church on Wednesday morning, it sent out a call for emergency supplies such as bottled water and packaged food. Wylie said the community responded.

“Right now, I think we’re set (on those items),” Wylie said Thursday. “What we really need is money.”

Donations can be made to any Upstate office of the American Red Cross.

Speculation about the possible cause of the fire ran rampant Wednesday and Thursday.

Mueller confirmed that his narcotics agents visited the boarding house just several days before the fire, acting on a call of concern about narcotics, but did not find anything suspicious.

He said initial investigations of the fire have not uncovered any evidence of things such as a methamphetamine lab.

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