Photo by Ruta Smith

Outpouring of community support overwhelms organizers

People who lived at the Palms Apartments in West Ashley are hurting. Some 15 dozen no longer have a home after a Monday fire ripped through the complex.

On Monday, as the raging fire offered more light than the still-rising sun, more than 200 residents evacuated. With nowhere else to go, many ventured across a parking lot to neighbors’ units to watch as their homes and everything in them burned to ash. 

All that most had were the clothes on their backs, beloved pets and, maybe, a to-go bag – if they moved quickly enough. Neighbors and friends sat on balconies and front porches with cups of coffee or something stronger as the fire inched closer and closer. Others saw their homes collapse into a pile of rubble. 

“We just didn’t know what else we could do,” said one shocked resident, who asked not to be identified.

Photo by Ruta Smith

The fire that broke out just before 5 a.m. It destroyed 5 buildings and damaged two others, rendering 56 apartment units uninhabitable and 179 people without a home. The blaze displaced residents in an additional 32 units in four buildings due to a loss of power and water. While power was returned by Monday night, water service was not restored as of Saturday morning.

“I just lost everything,” one man said Monday as the block was evacuated.

“Don’t talk about it just yet. It’ll only make you cry right now,” another answered. 

“Do I still have to go to school today?” the first’s daughter asked, offering a much-needed sense of comic relief to dozens gathered on the front steps. 

Even after the fire was under control, the feelings of uncertainty, fear, loss and pain remained. Even in those in the few buildings left untouched by the fire, a survivor’s guilt weighed heavily. 

One resident described the sight of the blaze as if there were angels surrounding her building.  But she said she couldn’t celebrate her own fortune because she knew dozens of her neighbors had lost so much just across the courtyard.

Donations poured in almost immediately

Rubble at The Palms Apartments | City Paper photo by Skyler Baldwin.

Victims of the fire have been met with dozens of shipping containers full of donated supplies, food, clothes and more since the Monday fire upended their lives..

Multiple donation drives spearheaded by community members, local nonprofits and churches have garnered support from countless residents across the Holy City. Some donation drives were even canceled due to organizers’ being inundated with more donations than they could handle. 

“Thank you, Lowcountry,” organizer Kim Wood wrote on Facebook. “Your outpouring of support has been wonderfully overwhelming!” 

Wood worked alongside Charms of Charleston Tours for a Pack The Bus event in which donations were loaded into the tour bus to be sorted and distributed to those in need. Wood told the City Paper that the bus and all storage bins they had available had been completely filled. 

“It’s been said that the Charleston community has a special way of coming together during difficult times,” Joe DeStefano, owner of West Ashley Tool & Rental, a donation drop-off site, wrote on Facebook. “The outpouring of support for the victims of the Palms Apartment fire is a testament to all that is good about our community.”

And while some supplies are still needed, the focus has shifted now to the need for volunteers to help with sorting and distribution. Organizers say they hope once the current surplus of supplies have been picked up, they can start accepting donations again to fill needs that are sure to come.

Investigations are still ongoing

The Charleston Fire Department and Charleston Police Department jointly requested help from the national response team of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to aid the investigation into the cause of the fire.

Investigators at the fire scene. | City Paper photo by Skyler Baldwin.

“Due to the size and magnitude of this structure, as well as the number of people displaced, we have decided to activate the ATF National Response Team,” said Mike Julazadeh, the city’s chief fire marshal.

He said late in the week that little had been determined about the origin or cause of the fire t due to the process of the investigation and the scope of the fire. Preliminary investigations have been underway since Monday morning, beginning with interviewing key witnesses and analyzing submitted photo and video evidence. 

The national response team includes veteran agents and scientific technicians with “extensive expertise” in determining fire origin and cause, according to Jeremy Godsey, agent-in-charge of the ATF Charleston field office. But the immediate priority has been taking care of displaced residents. 

“This is truly a joint emergency response effort between a lot of different agencies,” Julazadeh said. “This really demonstrated the power of automatic aid from among our fire departments, emergency medical response teams, emergency management division and the police department.”

Officials say a great way to help now is to make cash donations to organizations that can steer aid to those in need.  Two suggestions from authorities:

  • Editor’s NoteBaldwin is a resident of The Palms Apartments. His building did not burn.