It was a neighbor’s cries and frantic knocks on his door that awakened John Walters in the early morning hours in his studio/apartment.

“Fire ... fire ... get out!” Those were the words he heard as he opened the door. All he could see was thick, black smoke making its way up the hallway.

“Grab one thing from your apartment,” he said, “I’ll do the same and we’ll get out together.”

Walters ran back inside, opened the kennel door so his best friend, Jake, could run to safety. The young Australian cattle dog darted out the door as Walters grabbed his cell phone.

In the hallway, John Walters, 44, pulled his neighbor towards the stairs where they’re met by a wall of black smoke that was rolling like the current of a fast moving river. Jake stopped in the hallway, appeared confused, then moved in the opposite direction of his master.

Minutes go by.

John and the neighbor emerge through the ink black smoke, clinging to each other. As they cross the street, the buildings explode behind them.

Jake didn’t make it.

That fire on Front Street in Georgetown, barely a month ago, destroyed seven buildings in this historic port city. Thirteen people lived above the shops and restaurants and they all survived.

John Walters, an artist, lost his home, his studio and his dog.

Two days after the fire, Jake was found in his kennel. He’d gone back to his safe spot.

Barely a month later, Walters is not yet sure if these events will change him as an artist, but he’s absolutely sure he’s a changed man.

Handshakes and hugs

In the past few weeks, there’s a different look to Front Street. There’s a gaping hole where historical buildings once stood.

There’s also a hole in the heart of this proud town that believes it’s perfectly situated between Charleston and Myrtle Beach.

Walters says these last days and weeks have humbled him. He lost everything, but now feels more enriched.

People have slipped him money, given him new brushes and paint.

But nothing compares to a good, solid, firm handshake from another man who looks you in the eye and says, “everything’s gonna be alright.”

He also finds strength in a sincere, wrap-your-arms-around-me bear hug from an unknown woman in an apron who wants to donate some of her son’s shirts.

Five days after the fire, with borrowed brushes, paint and canvas, Walters created his first painting since the tragedy and called it “Front Street, Our Street.”

He may have lost all his supplies in that fire, but not his talent.

He’s so inspired by the town’s affection for him and others who were similarly displaced, he feels like a race horse, chomping at the bit, ready to take off and anxious to give back.

Trial by fire

Emotions remain raw these weeks later for many who lost their homes, businesses and possessions.

Those feelings ebb and flow much like the tide in the Sampit River that runs behind the remaining buildings on Front Street.

Georgetown’s natural beauty and rich heritage is still on display, even though some of its handsome buildings no longer are standing. It’s the biggest blow the town has felt since Hurricane Hugo.

John Walters has always felt he wanted to “work” his way to Charleston as an artist.

Now, he says Georgetown needs people who can and will contribute. He wants to be one of those people.

All the ashes have been swept up on Front Street. What remains for Walters is the privilege of being forever connected to profoundly beautiful, caring, wonderful people.

While looking for another dog in the shelter last week, Walters learned that somebody had anonymously donated money to the shelter in memory of Jake.

Just another handshake and a hug from Georgetown.

Reach Warren Peper 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com