NORTH MYRTLE BEACH—For James and Patricia Thoma, April 23 was not just another Friday.
It was the one-year anniversary of the day their rental home in the Barefoot Resort subdivision was destroyed by one of the biggest wildfires in South Carolina history.
They are one of seven families from Our Lady Star of the Sea Church who have spent the past year rebuilding their lives after losing their homes.
Fires burned an estimated 20,000 acres in Horry County on April 22-23, 2009, and more than 150 homes were either damaged or destroyed. No one was seriously injured or killed in the blazes.
The Thoma family moved from Long Island, N.Y., to the Grand Strand just nine months before the fire to buy Goldberg’s New York Bagels, a popular area deli. Mr. and Mrs. Thoma, daughters Brittany and Samantha, and their two Labrador retrievers, evacuated safely but lost all their possessions, including photos and family heirlooms.
“We thought we were going to get a hurricane when we moved down here, not a wildfire,” Mrs. Thoma said. “When something like this happens, you realize what’s important. Possessions are just material things.”
After the fires, Grand Strand Catholics and others in the community helped the Thomas and other affected families.
Our Lady Star of the Sea and St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach took up special collections, and Catholic Charities supplied funds too. Parishioners also donated food, clothing, and furniture.
Father Robert Higgins, administrator at Our Lady Star of the Sea, said the fires had an unexpected outcome for both the victims and those who helped them.
“The fire in many respects brought many people closer together in the parish,” he said. “In a parish of 2,600 families, it’s easy to be anonymous. Something like this acts as a way to bind us all together. People who donated knew they were helping people who could be sitting in the pew next to them, whose kids go to the same school. An event like this makes a big anonymous parish into a smaller parish.”
Father Higgins said several people affected by the fire told him the trauma led them to focus on their faith.
“Many of them were so touched by having other people being generous to them that they’re now prompted to give more to their church and to others,” he said.
Mrs. Thoma, whose family has since moved into a new rental home, said she could not believe how much help they received from parish members and the surrounding community.
“Every day strangers would bring us things, would call to ask how we were doing,” she said. “We learned just to treasure every day and not take any day for granted. The little things, the letters and phone calls, mean more than material things.”
A year after the fires, North Myrtle Beach firefighters are more prepared than they were in 2009 because of additional training and a donation of nine full wildfire turnout suits from the Diocese of Charleston and Walmart.
“Thankfully we haven’t had to use them yet,” said North Myrtle Beach Fire Chief Tom Barstow. “We obviously appreciate the donation of that gear because it helps our firefighters, and it started a process where more people are interested in donating gear. We really appreciate the support people gave us after that terrible situation.”
Joseph and Nancy Gosiewski, also members of Our Lady Star of the Sea, spent the night of the year’s anniversary at a fundraiser to purchase more equipment for the firefighters. The next day they attended a celebration for other Barefoot Resort residents who had lost their homes and rebuilt.
“We just got back from the garden center and we’re about to plant some more flowers,” Mr. Gosiewski said in a phone interview with The Miscellany. “Things are wonderful. Our home is rebuilt on the same location, pretty much the same house right on the same spot. We have a great group of neighbors and we’re all looking forward with a sense of celebration.”
Mr. Gosiewski said one of the big challenges is discovering day to day what still needs to be replaced, little things like a nine-inch baking dish his wife needed for a recent cooking project.
Since the fire, Mr. Gosiewski has joined the Knights of Columbus at Our Lady Star of the Sea, volunteers as an usher and takes part in other activities.
“When I moved here, I said I’m going to make more time to do things like that, but it’s always easy to find excuses and not follow through,” he said. “After the fires, I looked at myself in the mirror and said ‘There’s no excuse.’ Now we both get more involved in things, we’re more charitable, and we’re thankful for everything.”