Standing on the front lawn of his $500,000 home, owner James Cartee said he was sickened by the damage inside and upset that firefighters didn’t “finish the job” the first two times they were there this weekend.
“After the third fire started, I’m starting to think it is negligence,” he said.
The wood-frame, three-story house was a century old when Cartee and John W. Adams Jr. bought it in 1991. Cartee said they spent the next 12 years remodeling and renovating the house, which included attaching a cottage in the back. The result was a rambling, 8,700-square-foot, 23-room structure, filled with antiques and art.
On Monday afternoon, it was a wreck. Sodden carpets and crumbling drywall filled its corridors, and the entire third floor was a blackened ruin.
“It’s a beautiful home,” Cartee said. “At least, it used to be.”
It all began Saturday evening just after Cartee and a friend went out for dinner. Before they could sit down, he got a call from a housemate that his home was on fire.
Firefighters arrived at 2343 Walton Way at 8:50 p.m. and quickly extinguished the fire, which was started by an attic exhaust fan. Most of the damage was limited to the third floor. Cartee said firefighters left a tarp for some of his furniture and told him that the house was safe to stay in for the night.
“(They) were as nice as they could be,” he said. “They helped us move furniture and everything. We slept there Saturday night.”
It was after breakfast on Sunday morning that the fire started again, he said. They were inspecting damage and opened an attic access door. Cartee said air rushed in and rekindled the charred timbers.
Fire crews arrived at 11:50 a.m. to a much bigger blaze. This time, fire spread to the second floor and caused damage to a much wider area. The last fire crew left about 4 p.m., according to an Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department report.
Cartee said the house was not habitable after that. All the power had been turned off, and there was water and smoke damage throughout the house.
Cartee said they called firefighters once again Sunday evening to check out some smoke they spotted rising from the debris.
“They said it was just steam and it was OK,” he said.
He and his housemates spent the night elsewhere but went back Monday morning to survey damage and look for Sadie, a 2-year-old black cat who was still missing from the day before. It was about 10 a.m. when they smelled smoke and called 911 again.
“The fire sprang up from the same place we had seen the steam,” Cartee said.
That time, fire damaged the first floor and other areas. Cartee said he and Adams were upset over the damage and the repeated fires. They were also alarmed when fire investigators began to imply Monday’s fire had suspicious origins.
“They were saying it looked like arson,” Cartee said. “I poured everything I had into that house for years. I’m not going to burn it down.”
Tempers flared, and police were called. Adams and housemate Justin Ryhe were arrested and charged with interfering with a sheriff’s deputy. They were released from the Richmond County jail Monday evening.
Fire officials, however, said it was too soon to say what started Monday morning’s fire.
Chief Chris James said he was told that initial evidence did not point toward a rekindling of the previous fire, but the investigation was incomplete.
Rob Link, who also lives at the house and did much of the renovation, said the old home has a lot of hollow walls and chases where smoldering embers could hide and flame up later.
He spent part of Monday afternoon leading fire investigation Lt. Carlton Bradley into hidden areas where fire could linger.
Link later said they didn’t find all the hot spots. Just after 6 p.m. Monday, fire crews were again at the residence to put out another blaze.
“We were moving furniture and it caught fire again,” he said.