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Fire marshal, resident reflect on blaze
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Above, spectators line the fence at the DMV lot to watch as thick black smoke billows from the fire around 6 p.m. Monday. The black smoke was many area residents’ first indicator of the fire.
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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

The city fire marshal and an area resident reflected Tuesday on the blaze that claimed the former American of Martinsville plant the evening before.

Martinsville Fire Marshal Ted Anderson said Tuesday that it’s too soon to pinpoint the cause of the fire, or even which part of the sprawling plant the fire started in.

However, he said, area residents who were at the scene taking pictures Monday evening may be able to help fill in the blanks, particularly if they have pictures of the earliest stages of the fire.

“We’re still trying to gather pictures,” Anderson said. “That helps us on the investigative side, particularly to show fire progression.”

The fire burned quickly, Anderson said, and by the time the Martinsville Fire Department arrived on the scene, the plant was already “fully involved” — or completely in flames.

Virtually all of Henry County’s fire departments quickly joined the fight, Anderson said. He personally saw firefighters from the Dyers Store, Collinsville, Fieldale, Ridgeway and Horsepasture departments.

However, because he was on one side of the building and the scene was chaotic, he said he would not be surprised if other crews were on the scene as well.

“It was, fortunately, a huge turnout from just about all the county departments,” he said.

Anderson said he wished that the departments could have been able to save more of the building. However, he said, they were able to save a warehouse full of furniture across Aaron Street, other commercial businesses on Aaron Street, a loading dock portion of the former American plant and several homes on neighboring Emmette Street.

Although Emmette Street is a block from the fire, Anderson said the wind blew debris from the fire onto the roofs of homes there. Much of the debris still was visible Tuesday.

Thankfully, Anderson said, no one was injured in the fire. Thanks to the experience that area fire crews have had with industrial fires, he said, they knew how to prepare.

“This isn’t our first rodeo with something like this,” Anderson said. “We prepared for walls to collapse.”

The fire departments had created a firebreak — a gap in the earth that slows fire from spreading — near one of the plant walls, he said, and set up a “Blitz monitor”: an unmanned, adjustable water-spraying device. It was positioned near the base of the wall.

“The wall collapsed around it,” Anderson said. “Had there been firemen there, we definitely would have had injuries.”

Starling Avenue resident Linda Drage said the hard-working crews who fought the fire were prominent in her mind Monday afternoon as she watched the blaze grow through her kitchen window.

Drage said she became aware of the fire around 5:30 p.m. when she heard a “boom” and the electricity in her apartment went out.

“I looked out my back window,” she said, “and I saw smoke and flames. My neighbor came across the hall and said, ‘What’s going on?’ We went outside and saw it. I got my flashlight and found my camera and walked down to Walsh’s (Chicken & More).”

Even shortly after 5:30 p.m., Drage said, the flames and smoke were rising high above the tree line and surrounding buildings.

“You could see big sparks in the smoke clouds way up high,” she said, “and I’m thinking, those sparks, if they land on trees or houses ... we didn’t know what to do.”

Joined by several neighbors from her apartment complex, Drage and others snapped pictures of the fire. It was a frightening time, she said. At several points, it appeared to them that the fire was traveling along the railroad tracks beneath the bridge next to Walsh’s, straight toward their apartment building.

Starling Avenue was filled with cars, Drage said, partly with people wanting to see the fire and others, she suspected, just trying to get home after work.

Every so often, a part of the American plant would explode with an echoing thud, unlike anything Drage had heard before.

“We heard at least three explosions,” she said. “When the roof fell, that was the loudest. We thought, ‘That’s got to be the roof caving in.’”

Drage said she has seen only one other fire of the same scale.

“Years ago,” she said, “in Iowa where I used to live, there was a grain elevator seven miles away that exploded. We sat on our front porch, seven miles away, and watched the smoke clouds and the flames.”

What finally drove Drage and her neighbors inside Monday, she said, was the smell. It was pungent, reminding her of a combination between cooking oil burning in a skillet and kerosene.

“That’s when we decided to come inside the apartment,” she said. “I didn’t know what would be in the air, what kind of chemicals were burned and what was in that explosion.”

Thinking of the firefighters risking life and limb to put the fire out, she said, “gives me goosebumps.”


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