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Investigation continues into American facility fire

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MARTINSVILLE – Even if officials decide not to enter the building, a thorough investigation of the fire that destroyed the former American of Martinsville furniture factory on Aaron Street last month will be conducted, according to city Fire Chief Ted Anderson.

Based on the significant damage that the building sustained, “going into it probably isn’t going to give us too much more information” that will be useful in the probe, said Anderson, who doubles as the city’s fire marshal, or chief fire investigator.

But they anticipate making a decision as to whether to go inside within the next two weeks, he said.

The four-alarm fire occurred April 22. Although rain helped firefighters battle it, the blaze smoldered for days afterward. It did about $2 million in damages to the contents of Bargains Galore, a furniture store owned by John Martin that operated in the building, officials have said.

The probe already has begun. Investigators are reviewing photos taken of the fire and talking with the photographers, as well as others who witnessed the blaze – such as firefighters on the scene, people who live nearby and utility workers who disconnected electricity supplies as the fire raged – about what they saw, officials said Thursday.

Investigators already have walked up to the building’s remains and looked inside. Anderson said they saw “an extensive amount of burned debris and twisted metal,” as well as furniture remnants.

Soon, they will use drones and a ladder truck to take overhead photos of the scene. Based on what the photos reveal and the information that witnesses provide, they will decide whether to go in the building, Anderson said.

In making the decision, he said, “we’ve got to take into account the time and money it would take … and what the outcome would be” in terms of whether going inside would help investigators determine the cause.

The building is owned by Fred Martin & Associates. Tim Martin, a representative of the firm, said it did not have insurance on the building and John Martin did not insure his store or its merchandise.

Insurance previously on the property was canceled by the insurance company after an adjacent former furniture factory burned a few years ago, Tim Martin said.

Anderson said it will be up to the building owner to pay the costs of any measures, such as tearing down walls to help locate evidence of what caused the fire, officials may need to have done as they proceed with the probe – costs that insurance likely would have covered.

He said Tim Martin told him “whatever you all (city officials) need for us to do with the building (to help with the investigation), we’ll do it.” Tim Martin confirmed he said that.

The fire seems to have originated on the building’s second floor but due to the extent of the damages, little seems left to point to a cause. Therefore, one may never be determined, even if investigators enter the building, according to officials.

“When you have a fire that significant, it destroys a lot of evidence,” Anderson emphasized.

If investigators decide to enter the building, environmental tests will be done first to see if any hazardous chemicals are among the remains. If such chemicals are present, investigators will wear respirators and other protective gear, according to Anderson.

With the National Weather Service’s help, investigators have ruled out lighting as a possible cause. They also do not suspect arson because the building owner and occupant were uninsured and the Martins have been extremely cooperative during the probe, Anderson and Powers said.

Tim Martin said he has no idea as to what may have sparked the fire.

“The building was in good shape,” he said, mentioning that a new roof recently was put on it.

At a Martinsville City Council meeting Tuesday night, Aaron Street resident Timothy Keffer asked when the site, as well as the adjacent former plant site that burned, will be cleaned up. He also voiced concern about odors coming from the site of the latest fire and potential environmental problems.

Matters involving the first building that burned have been tied up in court but apparently have been resolved recently or are near a resolution, said City Manager Leon Towarnicki. He said he hopes that work to clear the sites of debris can begin soon.

Tim Martin said his firm plans to clean up the site of the building that recently burned as soon as possible.

“We don’t want it to be the eyesore across the street” with which neighbors have to contend, he said.

Regarding Keffer’s environmental concerns, Anderson said air-monitoring equipment that firefighters brought into the site after the fire showed no carbon monoxide or other toxins were present, and oxygen levels have been “perfect.”

As for the odor, “it’s harmless,” Powers said.

But “I respect the neighbors’ concerns,” Anderson said. “We don’t take them lightly.”

He added that if neighbors still have concerns about the odor, they can call the fire department and crews will bring monitoring equipment out to the property again.

The fire scene – including the affected part of Aaron Street – has been surrounded with tape. Anyone walking through it without police or fire personnel present will be arrested, Anderson said. Officials don’t want anyone tampering with debris that could be evidence of the fire’s cause, he said.

Mickey Powell reports for the martinsvillebulletin.com. He can be reached at mickey.powell@martinsvillebulletin.com

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