A fire in a Greene County hunting camp the weekend before Thanksgiving took the life of an Oconee County man, leaving his wife and two children to mourn his loss over Christmas and the holiday season.
In the early hours of the morning on Sunday, Nov. 20, Brandon Carter, 36, of Bishop, was sleeping in his small two-room cabin when a fire broke out and quickly engulfed the structure. His father-in-law Steven Momberg was badly burned attempting to rescue his long-time hunting buddy, who was trapped inside the burning cabin.
The tragedy took place at the main camp area of BigEye Hunting Club, which sits on a sparsely wooded lot off a dirt road in Union Point. Club President Larry Johnson said his 20-year-old club is a family friendly place with 23 members and more than 1,000 acres. Over the years, a makeshift village of 16 stick-built cabins and hunting trailers has grown up in a horseshoe with a common cookhouse at its apex. It is a typical Georgia hunting camp.
Carter’s wood cabin sat closest to the camp’s entrance. It was built onto the side of the Momberg’s trailer, with a long, covered porch shared between the two structures. It was a happy place, a getaway during spring turkey season, summer food plot planting and deer season for about a decade. There were bedrooms for the two men as well as one for Momberg’s grown son Stevie and bunkbeds for the kids who were supposed to be at camp that weekend.
But as often happens, life got in the way of plans. Band practice, high winds and no doe days that weekend left Carter and Momberg with the place to themselves. That was “grace,” in the words of a newly widowed mother of two who recounted the night her family was crushed by a phone call from Greene County officials.
After sending her husband off with orders to “bring home some taco meat” a couple days earlier, Tammi Carter received that unimaginable call at her home some time after midnight on Nov. 20. The Sunday morning before Thanksgiving, she woke her two children—Chase, 10, and Bayli, 9—to tell them they would never again see their father. She did not know the true horrors of that night until later, when she spoke to her father, who was hospitalized with second- and third-degree burns to his arms, face and neck.
Teary eyed and thumbing Brandon’s blackened wedding ring she now wears on a chain around her neck, Tammi told a story with details too graphic for print. With ammunition cracking under intense heat and propane canisters exploding around him, Momberg tried in vain to rescue his daughter’s husband. After an unsuccessful attempt to break through the rear wall, Momberg made a last-ditch effort and went through the flames at the structure’s only door. He was able to briefly make contact with Carter, but a 4-wheeler bursting into flames threw Momberg into the yard. Momberg then ran to a nearby house and had the residents call 911.
Upon arrival, first responders were unable to approach the buildings. They later told Johnson it sounded like a war zone, with ammunition popping and gas tanks exploding. Johnson said volunteers with the Union Point Fire Department and foresters were able to cut a firebreak, which saved a majority of the camp from the fire that spread quickly in high wind. Five structures, two trucks, a 4-wheeler and three golf carts were a total loss, along with everything inside and around those buildings.
“I’m at peace knowing he died absolutely doing something he loved. He spent the last two days of his life doing something he loved with my father,” Tammi said. “It helps me to think there’s something we can do to help, something good that can come of this, even if it’s just to let other daddies know so this doesn’t happen to their families.”
Brandon was a former Deputy Sheriff of Rockdale County who worked at his family’s Conyers courier service.
A spokesman with the Georgia Fire Marshal’s Office confirmed the fire was started by an electric space heater running too close to combustibles. Undoubtedly the speed and intensity of the blaze was fed by the inexpensive building materials so prevalent in camps, as well as the different types of fuel and paraphernalia necessary to the camping and hunting experience.
The fire has led Johnson and other club members to reconsider their campers, trailers and cabins. The Carter family’s tragedy highlights the importance of multiple points of egress, whether it’s a second door, a trap door in the floor or windows unblocked by bars or AC units. Basic fire safety equipment like smoke detectors and fire extinguishers are inexpensive peace of mind. And just being cognizant of things like not overloading electrical outlets, not burning lanterns and gas heaters indoors, extinguishing campfires, clearing flammable debris from around structures and how fuel is stored can make camps safer.
In the cold waning days of deer season, when you go to plug in that space heater, think of a wife and two children who will never again spend Christmas morning with Daddy. Think of Chase breaking down in the garage upon seeing the tangled strings of lights his father lit the house with each year after Thanksgiving. Think of Bayli, who has taken to wearing her father’s shirts as dresses. Even as Tammi scrambles to pull the pieces of her family and its finances together, nothing would give her solace more than the thought that their tragedy might prevent other families from enduring such horrible loss.
A GoFundMe account has been set up for the Carter children to ease the long-term financial burden they will surely feel with the loss of their dedicated father, the family’s primary breadwinner. Donations would be appreciated at https://www.gofundme.com/trust-for-brandon-carters-children.