Almost a week after a fire swept through the North Myrtle Beach Flea Market, the smell of burnt wood, metal and plastic still lingers.
The rubble holds classic vinyl records from The Supremes. There are charred albums of Elvis Presley and The Beatles and pages of torched books scattered where 86-year old Betty Brewer’s booth once stood.
“I had a little bit of everything,” she said, standing in the midst of her former booth. “I had hatchets, sausage grinders, cross cut saws, old coffee grinders. You name it, I had it.”
On Wednesday, everything that Brewer and some other vendors owned was destroyed when a three-alarm fire tore through a portion of the North Myrtle Beach Flea Market.
The fire was deemed an accident, but a specific cause has not been confirmed, Horry County Fire Rescue spokesman Tony Casey said.
On the day of the fire, Brewer was getting her COVID-19 shot and preparing for heart surgery in Charlotte. As she was driving down U.S. 17, she received a call from a former vendor at the flea market asking if she was alright.
That’s when Brewer found out the flea market was on fire. When she arrived, the scene told her everything.
“I knew it,” she said. “I knew mine was gone.”
Brewer estimates she lost about $150,000 worth of merchandise. There were things in her booths that “just couldn’t be replaced.”
“I had a record player that you could fold up like a suitcase. It was made in 1952. I lost that,” Brewer said. “I had African art that I had $500 apiece on. It all burned.”
Unfortunately, Brewer did not have insurance on her belongings at the flea market.
“Didn’t have a thing, honey,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m devastated. It was hard enough knowing that I had to have this surgery. But knowing this is all gone? I mean there’s just nothing.”
Just a few feet from Brewer’s booth, two other vendors, Darrell Lutrus and Ralph DePinto, cleaned out the booth where they sold used tools.
“We go around to garage sales, estate sales all across the country and buy old tools,” Lutrus said.
The booth is a side hobby for Lutrus, who is retired. The two have been working the booth for about five years.
“I do this for fun. I don’t need the money,” Lutrus said. “I like to help people who have projects they want to do.”
When DePinto heard that there was a fire at the flea market, he rushed up from Surfside to see how bad it was.
“It was terrible. Shocking,” he said.
To Lutrus, it was indescribable.
“You don’t put words to it,” he said. “It’s an internal emotion and everyone deals with it on their own. It’s like ‘Well, it could’ve been worse.’ You can pick up and start again.”
Lutrus said he feels “more hurt” for the older vendors, folks like Brewer.
“In some cases, this is their primary source of income,” Lutrus said. “If they can’t get back on their feet again in doing this, they’ll never get back to where they were.”
Sue Mahler from Little River is doing her part to help get vendors back on their feet. She launched a GoFundMe campaign.
Mahler is a regular at the flea market, going once or twice a month to browse.
“There was a young guy there recently that collects Volkswagen paraphernalia and I collect that, so we had gotten to be kind of friendly,” Mahler said.
She later found out that he had lost everything in the fire.
While Mahler was on her way home from physical therapy Wednesday, she could see the fire from a distance as she waited in traffic. It was in that moment that she reflected back to about six years ago when she lost so much in the flood of 2015.
“I know what it feels like to not have insurance and/or the emotional or monetary help,” Mahler said. “I just felt really bad. My heart went out to these people and I started a GoFundMe account.”
Mahler went to the flea market two days after the fire and spoke with vendors and the owner of the flea market.
“My heart just sank,” Mahler said, describing the moment she saw the aftermath of the fire. “Seeing the building itself, the people out there digging through the remains of what was there, it’s saddening. It’s just very sad.”
She posted the GoFundMe fundraiser later that day. Mahler has an initial goal of raising $10,000.
“They’re just really down-to-earth kind of people,” Mahler said. “I just really wanted them to know that somebody cared.”
DePinto was overcome with emotion when discussing the GoFundMe.
“We look at it as everyone coming together,” DePinto said, wiping away tears.
Brewer fought through tears when trying to express her gratitude.
“That makes me feel very honored,” she said.
For those who would like to donate to the GoFundMe, click here.
Along with the fundraising effort, there have been other market supporters who have reached out to see what they can do to help the vendors.
“We’ve had people come by with donations,” DePinto said. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s something that South Carolinians do,” Lutrus said. “It’s not like other parts of the country where it’s like, ‘Oh let somebody else take care of it. It’s somebody else’s job.’ The friends and neighbors around here seem to care more about their friends and neighbors and are willing to come out and support. It’s a good feeling to know that you live in a place where friends and neighbors really do take interest in what happens.”