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
“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.