Black chamber fire under investigation by feds

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Photo above: Agents from SLED and the ATF were busy Nov. 14 investigating the cause of a fire that gutted the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce building in Beaufort. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) National Response Team (NRT) has begun a joint investigation into the fire that destroyed the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce early Nov. 12.

The three-story building at Bladen and Duke streets was under construction and was nearing completion but wasn’t occupied. No one was injured in the fire. The total loss of the building is estimated at more than $2 million.

Federal and state investigators are working with local fire teams to determine the cause of the fire and where it started, said Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Chief Reece Bertholf.

The first alarm came in around 1:40 a.m. It took about three hours for firefighters to contain the blaze with help from several surrounding fire departments and fire districts, including MCAS Beaufort.

By mid-morning on Nov. 12, the fire was out, but firefighters continued to extinguish hot spots during the day. While the building was heavily damaged, Bertholf said containing the fire to the one location kept it from spreading to nearby homes and businesses.

“We are fortunate to have highly-trained firefighters on our department and with the departments that provided us much-needed assistance,” Bertholf said. “Any time there is a fire like this in a dense urban area, we worry about controlling the fire and keeping it away from other structures.”

Helping put down the fire were six pumper trucks and three ladder aerial truckers and more than 40 firefighters – both on-duty and off-duty.

Responding units included the city of Beaufort/town of Port Royal Fire Department, Burton Fire District, Lady’s Island-St. Helena Fire District, MCAS Beaufort and the Fripp Island Fire Department.

The Red Cross provided aide, food and drinks for emergency responders at the fire, and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Management Division provided a mobile command center, Bertholf said.

Beaufort police were on the scene throughout the night and day.

A team of ATF-certified fire investigators and special agents arrived in Beaufort on Nov. 13 to support the Beaufort/Port Royal Fire Department and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) in the investigation.

The NRT’s primary mission is to concentrate ATF explosives and fire investigative resources and expertise on large-scale incidents and complex investigations.

The NRT provides an immediate and sustained nationwide response capability, typically deploying within 24 hours of notification with state-of-the-art equipment and personnel.

“ATF’s National Response Team works closely with state and local law enforcement agencies and fire departments to effectively supplement the investigatory process with experienced staff and resources,” said C.J. Hyman, Charlotte Field Division’s special agent in charge. “The NRT is a very specialized unit of fire investigation professionals who work with local agencies to thoroughly investigate significant cases and determine or rule out criminal activity.”

The NRT’s resources include a fleet of fully equipped response vehicles strategically located throughout the United States that allow the NRT to be self-contained for the forensic examination of explosives and fire scenes.

The NRT works in conjunction with other investigators to reconstruct the scene, identify the seat of the blast or origin of the fire, and determine the cause. It is composed of veteran special agents, including certified explosives specialists, certified fire investigators, forensic mapping specialists, accelerant and explosives detection canine teams, explosives enforcement officers, fire protection engineers, electrical engineers and forensic chemists.