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Officials to meet about fire probe
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Martinsville Fire Marshal Ted Anderson (above) and other investigators will meet this week and begin to pull together a plan to probe the scene of a fire that destroyed several parts of the former American of Martinsville plant in early March. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Investigators will meet this week to formulate a plan and determine focus areas that hopefully will help pinpoint the origin of a fire that destroyed parts of the former American of Martinsville plant earlier this month.

“Finding the origin ... that is our goal,” said Martinsville Fire Marshal Ted Anderson.

A massive fire erupted at the site on Aaron Street, between Broad Street and Starling Avenue in Martinsville, late in the afternoon of March 3. Explosions could be heard from inside the building, and smoke

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reportedly could be seen as far as Ridgeway and Collinsville.

Nearly four weeks later, Anderson said Friday he does not yet know when the investigation into the blaze will begin.

However, he said the company that insured the building has approved paying for the costs of making the remains “of the areas we want to inspect” safe enough for fire investigators to enter.

“This is a highly unusual situation. Typically, we like to work a fire scene immediately, but this is a very unique situation, and there are multiple reasons for the delay,” Anderson said.

Safety concerns top the list, he said.

“That is due to a number of factors ... the instability of the walls, the integrity of the sheet metal and all of the duct systems are still in place. There are sawdust bins that are probably better measured in tons” than pounds that have steel inside, he said.

“Looking at it (steel and other materials), you can see that it was compromised during the fire,” Anderson said.

He explained that steel begins to lose its integrity at about 1,200 degrees.

“The twists and the bends” in the steel “tell us that the temperature of this fire exceeded 2,000 degrees. That is extremely hot,” Anderson said.

He recalled that shortly before being summoned to the blaze, “as I was approaching the scene and halfway down Broad Street ... I could feel the heat. And that was before I got to the railroad tracks. It was pretty extreme, just because of the size and the intensity. It was one of the hottest” fires he has worked.

“Quite frankly, our department could not afford to go in there and make the building safe, so we were dependent on the insurance company,” Anderson said.

When the investigation does begin, he said, those factors, along with the amount of time that has passed, will be taken into consideration. However, the passage of time will not compromise the scene, he said.

Although only two areas can be salvaged — the lowest portion of the furniture building and a storage building — the debris from the blaze itself holds information that is “reasonable to get out. For instance, we will look at the steel” and other materials left inside for information other than just the temperature of the blaze, he said.

“The debris left behind can also help lead us back to an area of origin, and we can sift through the material to look for things that may have helped the fuel load,” he said.

The scene was cordoned off and secured immediately after the fire.

It is “impossible that anyone compromised the scene. I say that because of the size of the destruction and the weight of the material. It would be impossible for anyone to go in there and disturb it or to do anything that would” hinder the investigation, Anderson said.

In addition, armed security officers have remained at the scene, and a fence surrounds the area.

“There are several reasons for having the fence and security there. In addition to our investigation, the security measures keep onlookers and vandals out,” Anderson said.

He added that anyone who ventured into the site would be “putting their lives in jeopardy” because of the safety issues. “There is nothing left to steal. The security measures are as much about safety as they are about preserving the scene.”

Anderson said he does not know how long the investigation will take, but when safety has been assured, he and more than six other investigators will enter the site.

“With the size of the scene, we are going to solicit as much qualified professional help as we can. We are going to go in and work hard collectively with other investigators to try to find a point of origin, however realistically. It is possible that we may not find anything within the building,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, we will be able to pinpoint it.”

When the investigation is complete, the insurance company and the property owner, Robin Hiatt, “will decide how to move forward with having the building demolished,” Anderson said. For now, and as long as the threat of harm remains, “the fence will remain. It will stay there until the property is made safe.”

 

 
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