On the evening of March 22, 1972 the largest fire in the history of Barnwell occurred as stated by many local historians.As the old, closed down three-story building in downtown Barnwell known as the Barnwell Hotel began to burn, Engineer Norman Still received the call at the Fire Department at 6:10 PM and responded with Engine 2. In the beginning stages of the fire a large black column of smoke was seen coming from a front window of the third story rising several hundred feet into the air. From a vantage point out front of the hotel on Main Street recently appointed Fire Chief Horace Dicks Jr. was looking at what was to be the most significant fire of his lifetime.
As activity began in the street people began to come out to see what was happening. One of those people was Robert Harris, an editor of the local newspaper The Barnwell People Sentinel and a City Councilman. His newspaper office was located across the street from the hotel and as he stepped out the front door of his office he saw Chief Dicks arrive and he immediately asked the Chief “What can I do?” and Chief Dicks replied “Get us some help.” Mr. Harris returned to his office and began calling for assistance from other towns. The first hose lines were deployed from Engine 2 located on Main Street directly in front of the hotel to the east side of the building. Several windows were accessible on the east side for hose streams to be directed into from the ground to the interior of the third floor near the center of the building where the fire origin appeared to be.
Not long after the appointment of Chief Dicks and his assistant Lloyd Vickery Jr. the two men discussed the potential of this event and made a decision early not to send firefighters into this building due to the dilapidated conditions and the risk it would impose to the lives of their firefighters. All efforts to suppress this fire were to remain exterior and contain the fire to the building and prevent the remaining buildings on Main Street from becoming involved in fire. The wind that evening was a light but steady March wind out of the west which was to the benefit of the firefighting effort. The closest building to the fire adjoined the east side of the hotel but was only one story and small in size. The main concern was the two story Davis Hardware Store on the west side which was separated from the hotel by a three foot alley. With windows on both sides and the rear of the hotel from the basement level to the third floor the fire would be showing from all of these windows before the night was over. The fire exposure to the Davis Hardware Store was going to be the most difficult to contain.
To compound firefighting efforts some other challenges occurred early on. When Corporal Charles Sanders of the Barnwell Police Department reported to the fire station to respond Engine 1 to the scene he found the truck would not start. Chief Dicks got word of the problem and reported to the station and used his pickup truck to tow Engine 1 from the fire station and began to jump start the motor while being towed. Soon Engine 1 was running and it took up position on the fire hydrant on Allen Street in the rear of the hotel.
The ability to notify volunteer firemen of the fire would be slow. The electric siren located on the town’s water tower that was normally sounded for fire calls was not working and the police department dispatcher Willie Duncan would have to call each volunteer fireman by phone. Between receiving police calls from telephone and radio he worked his way through the list of volunteers notifying them of the fire. Finally the Assistant Chief was not in town, he was working at a location near Sylvania GA but only one person knew of that at the time and that was his father and former Fire Chief Lloyd Vickery Sr. The retired Chief got in his car and headed out of town toward Sylvania some forty miles away to notify his son. The story was told that when Lloyd Sr. arrived at the truck terminal where his son was located he blew the horn on his car as he approached and when one of the workers opened the door to see what was going on he shouted “Is Lloyd in there?” Seconds later after hearing the anxiety in his father’s voice he ran through the door and replied “yes sir!” Lloyd Sr. replied “They’re selling the hotel”. Lloyd Vickery Jr. and a fellow worker James Lewis Creech both volunteer firemen with the department returned to Barnwell as quick as possible to aid in the fire.
Help began to arrive as Robert Harris had requested. The towns of Allendale, Blackville, Denmark, and Williston responded and they took up positions to support the firefighting effort. Williston placed their pumper on the fire hydrant at Reynolds and Main Street, Denmark was located at Washington and Franklin, Allendale was located at Burr and Washington and Blackville took up a position in the rear parking lot of the hotel. All six pumpers were operating at one time to battle the large blaze. With the arrival of Assistant Chief Vickery the leadership effort was shared between the Chief and his assistant. Over an hour into the operation and the fire was still growing and several tactics were deployed to control the blaze. A 35 foot ladder was raised to the roof of the two story Davis Hardware building and two 2 ½ inch hose lines were deployed on the roof with firemen to attack the fire from a elevated vantage point and protect the Davis Hardware building. A large water monitor was deployed in Main Street and a water stream was deployed in the front windows of the three story hotel building. A local fertilizer dealer Still and Williams Farm Supply brought in a tanker load of liquid nitrogen fertilizer to mix with the water streams with the intent to enhance the effectiveness of the water being applied to the fire. During the fire every water well pump with the City of Barnwell water system was place in manual operation to flow the maximum amount of water possible to support the firefighting effort.
The town of Bamberg called and offered their assistance and it was received. Bamberg Fire Department responded a fire truck and firemen and they took up a position as reserve to the town in case another fire was to break out. Some two hours into the fire the concern began to shift from exposure to the Davis Hardware building to a potential for building collapse and the effect it would have on the Methodist Church directly across the street from the hotel and Engine 2 pumping from the fire hydrant in the same location. Soon after a wall section on the east side of the hotel near the rear collapsed and nearly crushed several firemen. Some were hit by flying bricks and debris as they fled for their safety but no injuries were sustained.
The crowd began to grow on Main Street and the sidewalks were full of spectators watching the fire. Flames were twice the height of the three story building and embers were drifting in the air as large as golf balls. Mr. Mocky Holland a local service station owner just down the street kept his station open and provided fuel to fire trucks as the night ran on.
Another hour into the fire a decision was made to enter the stores on the east side of the hotel building. The Sundial Fashion Shop and The Barnwell Office Supply were opened by the owners to allow firemen to check the stores for damage. Although no fire damage had occurred the water damage was tremendous. When the front door to the Sundial Fashion Shop was opened water over a foot high poured out of the front doorway along with some mannequins and clothing and shoes floating in the water. Around 10 PM the fire was declared under control and assisting departments began to pack up and return home. The Lakefront Restaurant was authorized by the City of Barnwell to feed any fireman at the city’s expense during the evening as they finished their duties. Engines 1 and 2 remained on location through the night keeping the fire in check and at 11:35 AM the next day the Engines returned to the fire station.
By early morning the City of Barnwell had retained the services of a demolition company from Augusta GA. When they arrived that afternoon they evaluated the brick shell left by the fire and slowly but deliberately took down the parts of the building that posed a danger for collapse. Nearly a week later smoke continued to rise from the ruins of the building and periodically the fire department would wet down the area when fire was visible. The objectives of the Chief and Assistant Chief were met. They kept the fire in check, no one was injured, no one went inside and the town didn’t lose Main Street to the greatest fire potential possible. While there have been many large fires in size and monetary value since this fire none has had the potential to cause a loss of the city's core business district as this one did. If it wasn’t for the combined efforts of fire departments from neighboring towns and the planning and leadership of the Barnwell Fire Department all of downtown Barnwell would have been lost. The location where the old hotel stood is where the U.S. Post Office is today. The façade on the front of the existing building located east of the Post Office parking lot entrance matches the façade of the old hotel and is the only remains of the main street hotel era. The photos of the event came from Mr. Robert Harris of the Barnwell People Sentinel.