AIKEN - An Aiken landmark at Hopeland Gardens caught fire at midday Thursday, threatening a valuable collection of photographs and memorabilia that celebrate the 39 champion race horses trained there.
Smoke poured from the attic of the Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum while city park employees scurried to remove vintage silks and other pieces of exhibits spanning more than a century of equine lore, most of it irreplaceable. A sprinkler system and rapid response by Aiken firefighters kept the fire from spreading, said Terry Rhinehart, the city's director of parks and recreation.
"This is old-time construction with heart of pine," he said of the museum building, a remodeled carriage house on the 14-acre Iselin estate, which was willed to Aiken as a public park. "Everybody knows how fast fat lighter burns.
"If not for the sprinkler system and the Department of Public Safety's quick response, we would have lost a treasure that could never be replaced."
Fire damage was minimal - charred timbers and a hole in the second-floor ceiling, where a wire in track lighting apparently overheated, although inspectors had not confirmed that Thursday afternoon, Public Safety Capt. Tom Galardi said.
But water damage could be extensive, said Lisa Hall, the administrative specialist who has spent the past three months refurbishing the building and exhibits for a January re-opening that probably won't happen now. She won't know until water-soaked artifacts dry out how many can be salvaged. Among them are photographs that chronicle Aiken's love for horses through 120 years. And a newly installed ceiling will have to be replaced, she said.
She had, however, previously taken priceless historic race records to her office at the H. Odell Weeks Recreation Center to cull for an updated book on the hall of fame and museum.
"This has been my baby," Ms. Hall said as a vacuum pump sucked out water from the charred attic. "I don't feel like I've lost a child, but I feel like I've got one in the hospital."
She heard about the fire on the radio that parks and recreation personnel use to communicate, and dashed to Hopeland Gardens, she said. About a block away, she smelled the smoke.
A park maintenance worker reported the fire at 12:33 p.m., using her radio when she could not dial 911 on the museum telephone.
Debra Gilliam said she was taking a lunch break inside the building while a cold drizzle fell outside. She was just finishing chips and a Mountain Dew when "the alarm went off and water started coming out of the sprinklers. I ran outside and saw the smoke."
Maintenance worker Michelle Johnson was with her. Neither woman had noticed anything wrong until the sprinkler started, they said.
But the fire did not immediately activate the sprinkler system, Capt. Galardi said. The flames started above the sensors, burning through the ceiling and into the attic. Eventually, sprinkler heads there began to flow.
Firefighters were able to contain the fire within 15 minutes, but it was not completely out for about an hour.
Park workers clustered near the building, watching from a distance as Public Safety crews checked for undetected hot spots and pumped out water, threading the cord to their pump through the hitching post held by a jockey statue at the front door.
Among them, Ms. Hall choked back tears, waiting to be called inside to check for damage.
"At least nobody's hurt, and we saved the building," she said. "We have to take our blessings where we can."
Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.