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Officials begin fire probe at former American site
Fire investigators begin their inspection of the former American of Martinsville building on Aaron Street on Wednesday. Parts of the building were destroyed by fire last month, and officials have only just been able to enter the ruins to begin their search for the fire’s cause. (Bulletin photos by Mike Wray)
Fire investigators were able to enter part of the former American of Martinsville plant for the first time on Wednesday as they work to determine what caused a blaze that destroyed the complex early last month.
Martinsville Fire Marshal Ted Anderson and Deputy Fire Marshal Andy Powers entered the structure with investigators from Liberty Mutual Insurance, Anderson said. They entered only one of the buildings that made up the sprawling plant, he said.
“It was the only building safe enough for us to go in and continue the origin and cause investigation,” Anderson said, adding that investigators were looking at burn patterns and other clues that might pinpoint the trigger for the March 3 fire.
Previously, they had been able to observe only the perimeter of the building and review photographs and video of the fire, he added.
As early as Monday, Anderson said, the insurance company will bring in a 40-foot excavator with a clamshell-type claw to take down some of the more unstable walls so that the investigators can go deeper into the plant.
Some of the walls are so unstable, he said, that he’s amazed they haven’t already fallen.
“The walls that are dangerous, we’ve already gotten everything we need from them,” Anderson said, and knocking them down won’t impede the investigation.
The first day inside the plant didn’t help narrow down the investigation, he said, but added that is typical of fire investigations.
“That’s one of the hard parts,” he said. “You can’t jump to any conclusions. You have to put together all the evidence” and review it as a complete package after the investigation is concluded.
Although the fire occurred March 3, Anderson said that the intervening month did not hinder the investigation. In some cases, he said, rain and weather can actually help clear away some of the dust and debris from a fire scene, making the investigation easier.
“What we’re looking for is tangible, solid material,” Anderson said, such as wiring, steel, brick and mortar. The investigators will even examine rust patterns, he said, as they can illustrate temperature changes in steel.
According to previous Bulletin reports, Robin Hiatt of Patrick County and the JEB Stuart Auction Services LLC bought the building in mid-February.