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FACTORY INFERNO/Former American buildings burn
Fire likely to keep smoldering
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Martinsville Fire Capt. Bennie Gray walks down Aaron Street to get a closer look at the fire on Monday night. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A fire that destroyed most of the former American of Martinsville furniture factory complex Monday night remained under investigation on Tuesday as firefighters backed away from the smoldering remains late in the day.

The fire likely “will smolder and smoke for days” before burning itself out, said Martinsville Fire Chief Ken Draper.

On Tuesday, investigators entered part of the complex where the fire was out, but “there’s no way we can go into all of it” until the blaze is fully out, Draper said. Therefore, the investigation will be ongoing.

Investigators did not yet have any idea as to how the fire at the complex in the 200 block of Aaron Street in Martinsville started, he said.

“It’s not going to be an easy investigation,” said city Fire Marshal/Building Inspector Ted Anderson, due to the magnitude of the fire.

It is possible that the cause might not be determined, Anderson said.

“If we can’t find the exact origin, we’re not going to make one up,” he said, meaning investigators are not going to speculate.

Four of the buildings “right in the middle” of the complex collapsed, Draper said. He thinks there were six buildings at the site.

Firefighters saved the other two buildings and nearby homes by spraying water on them as protection from flying embers, Draper said.

“I haven’t heard of any damage to any homes,” he added.

The two buildings that were saved were warehouses, Draper said. One was vacant while the other apparently had furniture in it, and that structure may have suffered a slight amount of damage, he said.

Crews from the Martinsville Fire Department and volunteer fire departments throughout Henry County began responding to the blaze, which witnesses reported seeing as far away as Collinsville and Ridgeway, about 5:30 p.m. Monday.

After the blaze was contained Monday night, Draper said, county volunteer fire crews returned to their departments about 11 p.m. City firefighters who initially responded went back to city fire stations around midnight.

A crew of city firefighters who had been off duty before the fire occurred remained at the scene overnight to douse hot spots and keep the fire from spreading, Draper said.

About 7 a.m. Tuesday, they were relieved by city firefighters who came on duty for their regular 24-hour shift, he said. He expected those firefighters to return to their bases late in the day, but he said they would return periodically to the scene to monitor the smoldering.

Following wintry precipitation that fell on Monday, temperatures dropped into the low 20s that night, resulting in icy surfaces as firefighters battled the blaze.

“A few of the firefighters fell on the ice, but there were no serious injuries,” Draper said.

The city cut off electricity to the surrounding neighborhood after the fire occurred but restored it later Monday night, officials said.

Anderson said that was a “standard precaution.” Many high-voltage power lines are near the complex and if one had fallen onto firefighters, they could have been severely injured, he said.

He and Draper said none of the buildings that burned had electrical service connected to them.

A water line in one of the burned buildings had burst in January, officials found out during a property inspection then, Draper said. He said the line probably burst due to extremely cold temperatures that month.

Draper identified the owner of the property as JEB Stuart Auction services of Patrick County, operated by Robin Hiatt. He said the property recently had been purchased from C & S Property Management, and the new owner was issued a city business license Feb. 14.

The owner’s insurance adjustor is expected to visit the site today, and that will help fire investigators get their probe under way, Anderson said.

He said the insurance company has equipment and manpower that can aid in the investigation which the city does not have due to its limited resources.

However, “we’ve got the expertise” among employees to do a thorough investigation, he said of the city’s fire and inspections departments.


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