Colleton County Fire-Rescue


05/13/2011 – Four Alarm Structure Fire – “A” Shift

Incident # 11-02687 – Lightning appears to have been the cause of a four alarm structure fire at 3396 Hendersonville Highway Friday night 13-May. Around 22:00 a neighbor reported hearing a loud boom, what sounded like lightning striking a tree. Several minutes later he discovered smoke and flames coming from the Great Swamp Baptist Church. The building is located approximately three miles south of Walterboro in a rural community with no fire hydrants. The building was not equipped with a sprinkler system. Several severe thunderstorms had passed through the county for several hours prior to the fire. There was a great deal of lightning associated with the storms. High winds caused damage in the northwestern areas of the county with multiple trees down, blocked roads, downed power lines and power outages. The Walterboro area received about 30 minutes of moderate rain, light winds and lightning, but damage in the center of the county was light.  


9-1-1 was notified of the fire at 22:11. Engine 1, Tender 1 and Medic 1 arrived seven minutes later to find the two story wood frame church building with heavy black pressurized smoke coming from the roof of the sanctuary and the windows on the second story in the center of the building. Smoke was also coming from the attached fellowship hall at the rear of the building. Fire was venting through the roof on the rear of the center section. The church consisted of a main building which was originally constructed in 1880. According to a church member, that portion had served as the original church building for many years after it was constructed. It had been moved to its present location many decades ago from the front of the property and turned sideways to allow for the construction of a new sanctuary. A larger sanctuary was added in the 1950s. A third addition, a fellowship hall, had been added to the rear of building. Shortly after arrival, the Incident Commander issued a second alarm to bring additional equipment and personnel to the scene. Within minutes the roof of the fellowship hall was well involved. The fire then broke through the second story roof and quickly spread across the second story roof. The sanctuary roof was attached to this roof structure. The building, as with any older structure, had been modified over the years including drop ceilings in some areas.

Firefighters deployed handlines to the south side of the building and also forced entry into the sanctuary through the front doors. RIT was established and set up in front of the sanctuary. A handline was deployed into the smoke filled sanctuary in an attempt to cut off the fire spread to that area of the building. A team of six Firefighters working in near zero visibility, were able to remove many items from the sanctuary (Bibles, hymnals, electronic equipment, furniture, tables, sheet music, CDs, pictures and plaques). The items were moved outside and covered with salvage covers to protect them. Exterior crews stood by while personnel worked inside. As the fire moved into the attic space above the sanctuary, conditions inside began to deteriorate. The fire progressed rapidly causing the Incident Commander to order an evacuation of the building. Firefighters then staged an exterior attack on the fire, which now involved the roof on all sections of the building. A third alarm was issued at 22:45, followed by a fourth alarm at 23:04. This brought over 80 Colleton firefighters to the scene. Ladder 19 was set up in front of the building due to power lines on Great Swamp Road next to the church.
Crews worked in vain to contain the fire with multiple handlines and three master streams, however the fire consumed the roof and attic of the historic wooden building. It took Firefighters approximately two hours to gain control of the fire. With no fire hydrants, water supply was of great concern, especially with such a large wood building. Twenty-five firefighters using one Engine and nineteen of the County’s thirty four 3000 gallon water tenders work throughout the night to shuttle water for the fire suppression effort. One dry hydrant and two pressurized fire hydrants located one mile and one and half miles from the scene were used. Separate shuttles were established to supply Engine 1 and Ladder 19. Both units drafted from drop tanks, allowing two Tenders to dump at a time into each tank to maintain an uninterrupted water supply. The City of Walterboro brought in personnel from the Water Department to boost pressure and water capacity on the water system. Firefighters and apparatus were relocated from multiple areas of the county to back fill stations to maintain coverage for the county.

Once Firefighters were able to re-enter the building after midnight, chain saws were used to cut the collapsed roof rafters to conduct overhaul, which lasted five hours. As portions of the collapsed roof were removed, firefighters were able to extinguish the fire underneath the collapse. The roof on the majority of the structure was burned away. The entire fellowship hall and the second story were gutted. The first floor of the original structure suffered damage, but many items were salvageable, with two small classrooms and a room behind the sanctuary receiving little fire or heat damage, however they did receive smoke and water damage. The burning roof collapse in the sanctuary caused substantial damage in the that portion of the building, damaging historic pews that had been constructed with wooden pegs. The stained glass windows on the north side and front of the building were also saved, as well as the cross from the steeple which was recovered undamaged in the debris. Crews cleared the scene around 05:30 Saturday morning. In a preliminary investigation, Fire Investigators believe the fire was caused by lightning. No one was in the building when the fire occurred. The investigation in still under way. No one was injured and the church members we able to transport several pickup truck loads of salvaged items to another location for storage.

Engine 1, Engine 5, Engine 8, Engine 17, Engine 19, Engine 24, Tender 1, Tender 2, Tender 4, Tender 5, Tender 6, Tender 8, Tender 9, Tender 12, Tender 13, Tender 15, Tender 17, Tender 18, Tender 19, Tender 22, Tender 25, Tender 26, Tender 27, Tender 29, Tender 32, Medic 1, Medic 6, Medic 19, Medic 26, Medic 102, Rescue 1, Battalion 1, Car 12, Car 110, Car 116 and Car 119 responded.