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Fire cause undetermined, under investigation
Joyce Padgett and her son Henry, right, talk to an ATF investigator Friday in Pembroke. (Jeff Whitten photo)

A blaze that destroyed a two-story apartment building Thursday night in Pembroke is still under investigation, according to Pembroke Public Safety Director Bill Collins.

 Investigators from both the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the state Fire Marshal’s Office were at the fire scene Friday at the Old Mill Apartments off Strickland Street. Six families were displaced by the fire, and eight apartment units were heavily damaged by the fire, which started upstairs, but no one was reported injured.

Among those who lost much of their belongings and the home were Joyce Padgett, her son Henry and his wife Amber and their son William, as well as Padgett’s boyfriend, William Brower.

At noon Friday, Padgett, who had been up all night, said she’s lived in the apartment for 2-1/2 years after selling her home in Oklahoma to move closer to her daughter, Rose Butler.

She and others in the 3-bedroom apartment  were preparing to go to bed at some point between 10 and 10:30 p.m. when a neighbor from the building across the parking lot, Jessica Miles, came banging on doors telling people the building was on fire.

“She was screaming, get out, get out,” Padgett said. “We woke the kids, put our clothes on and grabbed wallets and cell phones and ran out with the kids.”
Padgett, who said she is a former volunteer firefighter herself, said when she ran into the parking lot, she could already see flames rolling beneath the second story ceiling of the outside stairwell.

Miles said she looked outside and saw fire and smelled smoke, and ran over to began knocking on doors. 

The heat from the fire was so intense firefighters and police also evacuated the building next to it, and vinyl siding on the apartment building across the parking lot bent and buckled. The heat also blistered paint off the hood of a pickup and car parked in front of the burning building.

The apartment complex owner, Ray Butler, said Friday the damage to the two buildings could be “close to” $1 million. He build the complex in 2011.

“The fire departments and everybody who helped did a good job making sure no one was hurt and the fire was contained so it didn’t do more damage,” Butler said. “It could’ve two buildings gone instead of one.”

Padgett videoed the fire with her cell phone, and her daughter live-streamed the fire on her Facebook page. 

Around midday Friday, Padgett and her son had hopes of recovering a metal box with medicines inside, but she said furniture she bought when she sold her house as a treat to herself was likely gone.

“Those are only material things,” she said. “The important thing is nobody got hurt.”

Padgett said the Red Cross was expected to begin helping people find shelter Friday afternoon, and some friends had already offered her couches and floors to sleep on.

Several children were evacuated during the fire, with neighbors across the way taking in the kids and helping keep an eye on them as firefighters continued until the early morning hours to pour water on the building to keep it from reigniting.

Collins said at one point late Thursday night children from one of the apartments on fire alerted firefighters to a pet cat which was left in their apartment, and firefighters went in and rescued the cat, gave it oxygen and returned it to the kids.

“Those kids were more worried about that cat than anything else,” he said. “I’m just glad we were able to save that cat.”

Collins said the fire was one of the biggest in memory in the city, and firefighters from Pembroke, Bryan County, Claxton, Fort Stewart, Bulloch County and Effingham County were among the agencies to respond. Collins praised the response and the work of firefighters, who were able to keep the fire from spreading to the building alongside it.

As firefighters continued into the night and next day, Pembroke Police Department Lt. Kelly Price, who once lived in the apartments, said a number of local businesses began bringing water, ice and soft drinks to the firefighters as the hours wore on.

By 1:30 p.m. Friday, donations of clothing, toys and personal items began filling up Pembroke city council’s meeting room at City Hall, and city administrator Alex Floyd said more donations are being rounded up around the county. 

 “That’s one of the things about Pembroke,” Collins said. “Everybody pulls together in a time of need like this.”



 Lewis Levine contributed to this story. 




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