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Fire marshal: Torch tied to blaze
At Bassett Superior Lines
Thursday, April 12, 2012
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
The blaze that destroyed the Bassett Superior Lines plant late last month has been ruled accidental and likely was caused by a cutting torch, Henry County Fire Marshal Rodney Howell said Wednesday.
The investigation “has been challenging due to the intensity of the fire and the amount of damage,” Howell said. “There was not a lot of evidence.”
Authorities received information that the blaze might have been set intentionally set, so they conducted “an extremely intense investigation,” Howell said.
The person identified in that report as being responsible for the fire “has been 100 percent cooperative with us and has been interviewed several times,” Howell said. He declined to identify the person.
After a two-week investigation, authorities determined the blaze was accidental, the fire marshal said.
During the investigation, the Henry County Department of Public Safety, in cooperation with the Henry County Sheriff’s Office and with assistance from the Virginia State Police, “have been to the site probably five times” to examine the scene and collect evidence, Howell said.
In addition, “we have used all the tools available to us, including reviewing footage from security cameras and looking at photos taken by responders and citizens,” he said.
Investigators also “interviewed employees and staff of the demolition company, talked to neighbors” of the plant and “passersby, and we even conducted a polygraph,” Howell said.
In conclusion, “we are unable to find any evidence of any wrongdoing,” he said. “The fire appears to have been caused by a cutting torch.”
The demolition crew used the torch “as part of the demolition to cut pipes around a large air compressor,” Howell said.
Workers “had stopped using the torch earlier in the day and remained” at the site for an hour to 90 minutes “on fire watch,” Howell said. The crews did not detect any signs of fire, he added.
The blaze is believed to have started after the crews left, he said.
Built in 1931, the 230,000-square-foot plant closed in 2007. Howell said it was not empty.
“It contained Styrofoam and cardboard boxes” used for furniture components, he said.
Finishing rooms were on the third floor, “and there was a lot of finishing material that, over the years, had collected on floor, ceiling and walls,” he said.
All three floors contained “a lot of dust from where the building had not been used for several years, and a lot of times, if a spark lands in a layer of dust, it will burn a little hole” but is encapsulated so that no smoke is visible, Howell said.
“You won’t see any smoke, but eventually, as it continues to burn down in a pocket of dust,” the spark turns into a blaze, he said. Then, “you’ve got a fire.”
Fire crews “run into that all the time in residential fires, but it’s usually in the insulation,” he added.
That is why firefighters often remain at fire scenes long after the visible flames have been doused, Howell said. “They are searching for hidden pockets of sparks,” he said.
The building was considered a total loss after the blaze, fire officials have said.
Damage was estimated at a total of $260,000, including $10,000 for equipment that belonged to the demolition crew and $250,000 for recyclable materials inside.
There was no insurance to cover the losses, Howell said.
Howell said that estimate does not include recyclable materials nearby at the site of the Bassett Table Plant, which had been demolished previously. He said at least half of those items were consumed or damaged in the Superior Lines blaze.
“There has been a lot of work put into this investigation,” Howell said. “I cannot overemphasize the amount of cooperation and work between the sheriff’s office and public safety.”