Disaster Breaks Out at Piedmont’s Swanson Center by Keaton Benfield

A fire erupted and shortly after, an explosion sounded. Guttural screams for help ripped through the smoke that engulfed the mainstage of the Swanson Center at Piedmont College early Wednesday morning, where many gathered for a play that never had the chance to reach its final act.

Authorities said that the deadly fire resulted in an explosion that collectively injured over 100 people and took the lives of 28. The devastation of the fire left 28 attendees severely burned, while 29 others received multiple injuries in the aftermath. Many victims were trampled by others in a panic to escape the blaze.

“I was calling my mom to tell her I was on my way to come eat lunch,” said Rebekah Hill, a veterinary technician that survived the disaster. “I just saw some smoke and that was it.”

“Because of all the power, all the mock-up props and stuff made out of wood and combustible materials, a fire could start here,” said Fred Bucher, the facilities management and safety director at Piedmont College, in regards to the cause of the incident. “It’s not unusual for a fire to happen in a place like this.”

Despite the normalcy of a fire of this caliber, authorities said that it is still too early to produce evidence leading to a cause, but they did not entirely rule out any cruel intent or terroristic motives, as Homeland Security soon became involved.

More agencies arrived on the scene as nursing students from Piedmont College and firefighters from the Demorest Fire Department, as well as the Habersham County Fire Department, led the last of the victims to safety. The agencies involved aided those in dire need of medical assistance or investigated the evidence that still remained inside the building.

“As things progressed we were requesting additional units, as well as the coroner, Mobile Morgue, Air Life and power companies,” said Lynn Smith of the Habersham Emergency Management Agency, which is responsible for any programs related to emergency preparations in the county.

“We’re there to assist in any way that we possibly can, with anything of this magnitude,” Smith said. “And we provide the equipment and the tools and the manpower that they need that’ll get them here in a timely manner.”

Dave Palmer, the Public Information Officer for District 2 Public Health, said that because of the amount of corpses recovered from the fire, they could not be transported to the same morgue, where the facilities generally have one or two spaces available at a given time. This creates a problem for those affected by the loss of life.

“Funeral homes don’t have a lot of capacity to take care of bodies so that’s where Public
Health and the coroner step in,” Palmer said. “We do find morgue spaces for bodies. We can take care of the dead bodies in a way that’s the right way to handle a body.”

Nurses tended to survivors that huddled together on tarps. Shaken, many victims looked on as an Air Life helicopter from Gainesville, Ga. airlifted those in critical condition. A tarp placed adjacent to theirs held the corpses of the attendees carried out of the Swanson Center. As the coroner pronounced those individuals as deceased, it reminded the survivors that they are lucky to be alive.

The disaster remains under investigation and officials are looking into any direct links that could provide them with answers as to why this event occurred.

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