A good chunk of Kershaw County Council’s nearly four-hour meeting Tuesday night was devoted to items concerning firefighting, from a tragic date a century ago to meeting funding needs now so firefighters can safely communicate while doing their jobs.

On May 17, it will be 100 years since one of the worst fires in U.S. history happened, taking the lives of 77 county residents, children and adults. That night in 1923, the school, which was scheduled to close, presented its final function: a play called “Topsy Turvy” put on by the students. The audience of some 300 people gathered on the second floor assembly area, and everything was fine until the beginning of the play’s last act.

As related in a resolution naming May 17, 2023, as Cleveland School Fire Day that was unanimously approved by council Tuesday night “…a lamp fell from the wall spilling its flammable contents on the stage. The fire spread all over the stage area and danced across the ceiling, eventually engulfing the school in flames.”

Unfortunately, aside from windows, the only true exit was a single stairway down to a door before which so many people got jammed, they could not get out. Many people were forced to jump from windows to survive. Of the 77 victims, only 10 were able to be identified for private burials; the remainder were buried in a mass grave at nearby Beulah United Methodist Church’s (UMC) cemetery.

County Chairwoman Katie Guinn had a number of people come up before council as she read the resolution, including Kershaw County Fire Services Chief Will Glover, Camden Fire Department Chief John Bowers, and Chief Chris Spitzer and Capt. Chris Jones from Lugoff Fire-Rescue (LF-R).

Glover said there will be three programs commemorating the fire and its victims. The first will be the day before the anniversary, Tuesday, May 16, with a seminar about the fire and what has changed since then at 6 p.m. at the Revolutionary War Visitor Center at Camden (212 Broad St.).

On Wednesday, May 17, at 10 a.m., there will be a memorial program at the school site, 410 Cleveland School Road, east of Camden. That will be followed by a memorial service at Beulah UMC.

Bowers asked council and the audience to imagine going back 100 years to when Kershaw County, especially around the Cleveland School community, was much closer and more compact.

“I think there were families that lost every member,” Bowers said; among the fatalities, he said, was the late Gov. John Carl West’s father. “This thing touches every part of our community. I’ve learned through the years that people do forget. When I go around the state and talk to firefighters, it is ironic how people don’t know about the tragedy — the largest loss of life that’s happened in the state of South Carolina and even in our community, people forget or maybe young people just don’t know. So, it’s our job to keep that memory alive and the memory of those who lost their lives.”

Beulah UMC Pastor Deborah Joe said she realized last year that the 100th anniversary was coming up in 2023.

“Growing up as a young child, my grandmother used to talk about the fire … and when I became the pastor, I actually saw this mass grave site, so this is something was placed on my heart,” Joe said. “Their lives were sacrificed so that we would have better schools, places for our children, and for schools all over the world.

Ann Seegars said her mother-in-law, Kate Dixon, was among the students graduating from Cleveland School that year.

“She was actually in the fire, and was thrown out of a window by a gentleman,” Seegars said. “She broke her arm, but her mother and two siblings were burned to death. Also, her brother’s wife and child were also burned and other family members, distant relatives. But I just can’t imagine the tragedy these people felt and some families had no one to go home. It took 20 years for our community to rebuild and now it is overflowing with people.”

She said her mother-in-law went on to live a “very good life.”

Organizers said a documentary will be produced that should air on PBS next year. Each council member also received a commemorative coin as thanks for making the resolution. (The C-I will have a look back at the fire and its impact in a future issue.)

Near the beginning of the meeting, Spitzer was the first to sign up for public comment, saying he wanted to express his support for a proposal to redirect $3.4 million of $10.2 million in American Plan Recovery Act (ARPA) funds originally designated for sewer infrastructure improvements to fund the purchase of new radios for first responders across the county, including the LF-R. He said that the county was originally notified in February 2020 that their current radios would not work after this year. Luckily, Spitzer said, that deadline was moved to 2025 and again to 2027. However, he pointed out, that is only four years away, and the longer the county waits, the more expensive they will be to purchase. Spitzer said he has estimated that the county has “squandered” $296,000 by not purchasing the radios when originally it originally learned about the obsolescence.

“Now I will tell you this: This county is operating right now on a horseshoe. The majority of the firemen in this county are entering burning buildings with no radio communication whatsoever. That’s in the county fire service, that’s in Lugoff,” Spitzer said. “Take into consideration that firefighter has just entered a burning building. We bake cookies at 350 degrees. Would you pick up that sheet of cookies, that pan? Absolutely not. When we enter a burning building, that’s between 800 and 1,100 degrees. And it’s not like the movies; you don’t see your hand in front of your face.

“When you enter into that burning building and you don’t have a radio to be able to talk to all your help outside — if you dare to, close your eyes right now and imagine yourself entering a burning building, a young firefighter or an old firefighter, entering an immediate danger to life and health situation, you can’t see anything, your ears are burning — he has no communication, he’s scared, she’s scared, anxiety through the roof — your heart is pounding through your chest. You’re going in blindly into an environment that you have never been into in your life. How many of us can walk around our house without stubbing our toe in the middle of the night? Think about entering that building searching for a child — searching for any human — but close your eyes and think about that fireman that’s looking for your child, my child. I’m telling you and I’m just asking you, do what’s right for the citizens of Kershaw County.”

Later in the meeting, Guinn formally brought forward a proposal to reallocate the $3.4 million in ARPA funds for the radios. Vice Chairman/District 4 Councilman Jimmy Jones made the motion, which was seconded by District 5 Councilman Brant Tomlinson.

As the person who placed the item on the agenda, Guinn led the discussion, saying that Spitzer contacted her about the situation more than a year ago, long before she was elected to council. She also noted that Glover told council during its planning session earlier this year that radios needed to be a priority for the Fiscal Year 2024 budget.

“This isn’t a budgetary request; this is a budget necessity. This is inevitable, this is something we have to do,” Guinn said.

She said that with a possible ordering backlog and price increases — including another pending increase next January — she would like to see the matter taken care of as soon as possible and that based on her reading of official guidelines ARPA guidelines, those funds could be used to purchase the radios.

District 2 Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr., who is the chairman of council’s finance committee, agreed that what Guinn had read was “absolutely correct.” However, Tucker also reminded his colleagues that the item had originally been given to the finance committee in March to study and return with a recommendation.

“We came out within the 14 days and reported that we did not have all the information,” Tucker said. “We got final numbers just yesterday because we met and we had some discussion at the meeting, and we’re going to set up some new meeting dates immediately following this meeting.”

Tucker said there are things that he wants council to consider before making the decision on the ARPA funds.

“I don’t want it to appear we have a fight amongst this council on grabbing ARPA funds to use for things that we may have prioritized differently than one another,” he said, adding that due to these procedural concerns — and despite his support of first responders — he would not be supporting Guinn’s motion.

District 1 Councilman Russell Brazell asked County Administrator Danny Templar for clarification about what ARPA funds the county has available. Templar said there is still more than about $12 million left, which is earning interest, but with some of it already committed. He confirmed for Brazell that there would be approximately $7.5 million to $8 million left if council committed to Guinn’s $3.4 million figure for the radios. Brazell said if that was the case, he was definitely comfortable with moving forward.

District 3 Councilman Derek Shoemake, who is also on the finance committee, said $10.2 million of the $12 million-plus remaining funds represents money committed to sewer projects. Doing some calculations, Brazell said that in a “worst-case scenario” reducing the $10.2 million by the $3.4 million would still leave $6.8 million to assist with sewer projects. Anything above that, Brazell said, would be “money grabbing.”

Guinn refuted that notion, reiterating her call that the radio funding is not a request, but a necessity.

“So, this is completely separate in my eyes from the budget,” she said.

Shoemake said while he supports the effort to fund the radios, he disagreed that it wasn’t a budget matter.

“I do know the finance committee wanted to put this into the second reading [of the budget], but I don’t disagree with anything anybody else has said. This is certainly a top priority,” Shoemake said.

Tomlinson said he “wholeheartedly supports first responders” and agreed that the finance committee unanimously voted to have on second reading of the budget to include ARPA fund matters and how they would be divided.

“I also agree that I think that is part of the budget process, but I’m not going to let politics stand in the way of this, because I wholeheartedly support [it] and I think we’re going to end up having to have this come out of ARPA funds anyway. So I am voting for this tonight even though I think we should have stuck with the process,” Tomlinson said.

District 6 Councilman Danny Catoe said he served at one point with a volunteer fire service and, therefore, knows what it’s like to go into a burning building. So, he planned to support the $3.4 million reallocation, but said he had little “heartburn” over one aspect of the matter.

“This came out on the agenda — nobody took the time to call and talk to me. Didn’t ask me my opinion, didn’t explain anything to me. I was blindsided. This council has got to get better at communication,” Catoe said. “I don’t want to put a damper on this tonight, but it upset me tremendously to know that everybody else expects me to go to them when I’ve got an idea about something I want to bring up, but nobody can come to me. Maybe District 6 doesn’t matter. I don’t know, but I wasn’t included on anything until I saw it on the agenda so I had to do my own homework.”

Catoe also said he was disappointed that it has taken so long for the county do something about the radio issue for first responders.

“So, I’m very aggravated at this whole situation. I’m aggravated that this county took this long to get radios our first responders desperately need, and in the process, just as Chief Spitzer spoke of, the cost just went up,” he said.

Guinn responded by saying she did not call any member of council about the matter, adding that anyone on council can place any item on the agenda.

“I put it on the agenda because I thought it was time to make a decision,” she said, but did concede that she may have presumed that because it had come up in the past, that the rest of council knew it was a priority with which she was trying to deal.

Catoe, however, said he knew the matter had been sent to the finance committee and that he expected the committee would bring forward a recommendation.

“And then all of a sudden it shows up on the agenda, which is fine — I’m fine with it, it’s got to be done, it needs to be done, and it’s going to get done,” he said, “but I got chastised because I knew of something that was on the agenda before and I didn’t tell anybody, so I just expected that I would get some courtesy. This needs to pass, this need to be over with tonight and we need to have better communication.”

Reading from council’s rules, and counter to a point Tucker made earlier, Guinn said the 14-day period for the finance committee had passed, so she placed it on the agenda. She and Tucker also assured Catoe that District 6 “does matter.”

Tucker also said he was concerned that while council had listed first responder radios as one of its top nine priorities for the upcoming fiscal year — the list of which was next on the agenda — there are eight others that need to be funded as well. He said that while the finance committee was trying to balance and fix nine items, council on Tuesday night was trying to fix one.

Jones, meanwhile, defended Guinn, declaring she had “done it by the book” and criticized his colleagues for, just a few meetings earlier, accepting a $6 million match for recreation projects that he claimed had not been on the agenda. Brazell interrupted to say it had been on the agenda, and the two went back and forth for a moment with claims that it was or wasn’t until Guinn reminded Brazell that Jones had the floor.

Brazell attempted to speak again, but Guinn told him she would not give him the floor and called for the vote, which came out 6-1, with Tucker against.

Two versions of Tuesday’s agenda were sent to the media and, presumably, the public.

The C-I received the first version a little after 5 p.m. on Friday, April 21. That version included the ARPA motion, but dedicating $2.7 million, not $3.4 million, from sewer utilities to radios. The second version, received by the C-I around 10 a.m. Saturday, April 22, included the motion as well, only this time at the $3.4 million level.

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