Criminal investigation into Whittemore Elementary school fire begins. Here’s what we know

A criminal investigation is underway after an historical, former Black elementary school that is set to be demolished caught fire last week in Conway.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has taken over the criminal investigation after Conway Police Chief Dale Long requested its assistance.

At a Conway city council emergency meeting on Monday, Long outlined what was found at the school located on the intersection of Horry Street and Maple Avenue.

At the scene, Conway Police units found obvious signs of squatting — including food wrappers, bedding and fecal matter. Drug paraphernalia was found as well, Long confirmed.

The city took ownership of the Whittemore site in 2017, after Horry County Schools relinquished it. The 70-year-old building at 1904 Maple St. needed $30 million worth of renovations even before the fire, and city leaders have long said using public dollars to preserve it was not feasible due to the presence of asbestos and other hazards.

Because of the dangerous environment, putting officers in the building for routine patrols was too dangerous, according to Long.

“It’s a call-driven process,” he said. The police department has only been to the site when calls are made due to the dangerous environment.

At this point, it’s unclear how many calls have been made. Long said that because the property has many entry points and hidden spots, not many people have noticed squatters in the past.

Another obstacle in the investigation is the crime scene itself. With the fire spreading in a large amount, it was difficult to process a proper crime scene, Long said.

Conway police department develops person of interest

Long said that law enforcement have found a person of interest and have started to conduct interviews, but forensic testing could take a long time.

No arrests have been made, and it may take a while for an arrest to happen. Samples were collected to look for accelerants, but it takes time, he said.

Long said that the outcome of the fire investigation may turn out to be an unintentional one.

A multi-disciplinary team will first review evidence gathered about the fire.

“They hopefully might be able to shed some light on whether it was just somebody trying to stay warm, somebody trying to cook, or whether someone had criminal intent,” Long said.

No one was found at the property when the fire happened. Here is a summarized timeline of that day, taken from the meeting’s packet.

  • 12:43:44 – 911 call received

  • 12:47:42 – Call dispatched

  • 12:51:55 – Arrival of first Conway Fire units (Squad 51 and Battalion 51)

  • Reported fire showing from the front side and requested a second alarm

  • Second Alarm – Additional fire apparatus from Horry County Fire Rescue dispatched

  • 1:14 – Received a second structure fire report on Woodward Drive

  • 1:15 – Chief 51 cleared Horry Street to respond to Woodward Drive

  • Horry County Engine 3 (Bucksport) cleared from Horry Street to respond

  • Horry County Engine 46 responded from their station (Pitch Landing Road)

  • 4:30 – Fire was deemed under control

  • 6:09 – Public Works notified to send heavy equipment for demolition of affected areas due to unsafe conditions

  • 7:05 – Public Works equipment and manpower arrived on location

  • 7:15 – Demolition on the main area of fire origin began

  • 7:45 – Demolition was concluded

  • 8:17 – Allan Huggins requested by Chief Long to fly the drone

  • 8:46 – SLED requested by Chief Long

  • 10:39 – SLED arrived on scene

  • 12:30 – Assistant Chief Perzan contacted DHEC due to the history of asbestos

  • 16:30 – Investigation was concluded by SLED

  • 16:45 – Demolition on remaining portion of the burned section began

  • 17:35 – Ladder 53 arrived back at the scene to assist with the remaining hot spots after demolition of the remaining burned portion of the building

  • 18:49 – All units cleared

While the Whittemore site faces demolition, council members said a bid by Whittemore Racepath Historical Society — which has visions of turning the site into a mixed-use cultural hub — should be considered as part of the 10-acre property’s long-term future.

Whittemore Racepath in August 2021 proposed flipping the 10-acre Whittmore site into a 120-unit housing complex and community center.

City Manager Adam Emrick told reporters demolition costs weren’t immediately available. Asbestos remediation will take place as the main 38,000-square-foot school is razed — which could happen by later this month.

The demise of Whittemore’s main building means that concept can’t move forward, but the city council said it supports the historical society’s efforts. A revised conceptual plan could be back in front of them by April.

“It represents the history of a people and an era,” Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy said midway through the emotional two-hour meeting.