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Damage estimated at $516,000
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This panoramic view of the fire scene was taken Tuesday morning, with smoke still rising from the rubble. In the foreground is Aaron Street, looking north. Fire officials said they could not estimate how long the site could smolder. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Martinsville Fire Marshal Ted Anderson is estimating the damage from Monday’s fire at the former American of Martinsville plant at its assessed value — $516,800.

That is the assessed value of the 281,316-square-foot building, according to records in the Tax Assessor’s Office.

Martinsville Fire Chief Kenneth Draper said Robin Hiatt of Patrick County and the JEB Stuart Auction Services LLC bought the building in mid-February.

Draper added that he was told that the building was insured.

John Martin, who stores furniture in a three-story building across the street from the blaze, said that Hiatt “had just taken possession of it (building) here recently.” Martin said he had “noticed some movement, as they are bringing the old stuff out and taking new stuff in.”

He said he was told that Hiatt’s plans are to buy close-out merchandise from manufacturers to resell in retail stores. Martin said he was told that Hiatt and Darren Diggs, also of Patrick County, planned to open retail businesses “throughout Virginia and North Carolina.”

Diggs said his only role in the project was helping Hiatt with the stores. Otherwise, the project is Hiatt’s. He could not be reached on Tuesday.

Martin, meanwhile, is counting his blessings.

“I was very lucky. The fire department did one hell of a job” in keeping the blaze away from the 100,000-square-foot building where Martin stores furniture, he said.

“Oh me, it would have been something” if that building had caught fire, too, Martin said. “I do think it hit me some. It melted some windows in my building. That tells you how hot that fire was.”

The heat from the blaze “still melted the steel in my windows. Goodness gracious that’s a hot fire, isn’t it,” he asked rhetorically.

Firefighters sprayed water on the building to help protect it, according to Martin. “We haven’t been in yet to assess our damage, but I think a lot of the damage is water and smoke.”

Some said the scene reminded them of a fire nearly 19 years ago. That April 26, 1995, blaze ripped through an American plant, leveling two of the furniture company’s buildings and an antique mall.

Donald Draper Sr., who was Martinsville fire marshal in 1995, recalled that blaze well.

“In 1995, it was where people worked,” he said, noting that chemicals were used to make furniture. The chemicals may have been flammable, and some machinery used in the manufacturing process may have thrown off heat or sparks, he said.

He returned to the site on Monday — as a spectator — and watched fire crews from all over fight to contain the blaze.

“I wasn’t there for long. I heard a couple of bangs last night, but I don’t know what they were or anything,” Draper said. “Back in ’95, we had a lot of bangs,” most likely from chemicals stored inside the building in 55-gallon drums. He said he believes those materials “are gone by now. I think what we had (Monday) night was a lot of storage buildings” to catch fire.

Draper said he knew that “there were more flammable liquids, more flammable contents in the building” in the ’95 fire, because “there was a lot more burned.”

The portion of the property destroyed by Monday’s blaze was in the middle of several buildings that had been constructed and interconnected over time as American expanded, according to Draper. He described the property as one large “building which had four or five sections.” Those sections were interconnected through the years, he added.

Monday’s blaze destroyed three of the buildings or the sections of buildings that he described as being in the middle. The upper portion of the building (including those several sections) was gutted, Draper said.

Kenneth Draper recalled the ’95 blaze as well.

“I was on one of the first engines that got there. We happened to be testing a hose off of Cemetery Street ... (when) we got tones for a structure fire,” he said.

By the time his unit got to the scene, there was heavy smoke in the building where the fire originated, Kenneth Draper said.

“We could hear explosions and stuff falling” and realized that the fire crews would have to back up because the building was about to collapse, Kenneth Draper said. Crews then tried to beat the spreading flames to an adjacent building.

“We tried to stop it, but we had to keep backing up and backing up,” Kenneth Draper recalled.

Firefighters were able to keep the blaze from what then was American’s office, which now houses the Young, Haskins, Mann, Gregory, McGarry & Wall law firm, he said.

“We were able to stop it from going to that building and burning it down,” he said. “That was a long day and night.”


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