By Jessie Burchette
A federal official said Monday that the investigation into Friday’s deadly fire at Salisbury Millwork could be wrapped up in a few days or it could take several weeks.
“All theories are open until they are systematically eliminated,” said Earl Woodham, public information officer with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We eliminate everything. … That’s the process,” said Woodham.
The plant fire at 1910 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. claimed the lives of two Salisbury firefighters, 19-year-old Justin Monroe and 40-year-old Victor Isler.
Investigators continued Monday to dig and sift through the mangled mess that remains of the plant.
The site remained off limits as more than 30 investigators from the ATF, the State Bureau of Investigation, the Salisbury Police Department and the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office worked to determine how and where the fire started.
Initial reports indicated the fire may have started in a basement area. Employees arriving around 7 a.m. Friday found heavy smoke in the building.
ATF investigators based in Charlotte arrived on the scene Friday afternoon and the bureau’s National Response Team arrived Saturday.
The response team worked at the World Trade Center site after Sept. 11 and more recently helped investigate the June 2007 fire at the Super Sofa Center in Charleston, S.C., in which ninefirefighters died.
Woodham expressed confidence Monday afternoon that the investigators will make a determination.
“This is what we do,” he said. “It’s not overwhelming.”
He said the ATF’s focus is on determining the cause or origin of the fire. Other agencies will focus on determining where the two firemen died.
If investigators find something suspicious in how the fire started, Woodham said, the SBI and city police will take the lead role.
He indicated the federal Occupation, Safety and Health Administration may be involved, but is not part of the investigation at this point.
Woodham declined to discuss details of the investigation, referring questions to Karen Wilkinson, the public information officer for the city of Salisbury. Wilkinson had no information available.
On Saturday, crews used pumps to remove water from the basement of the building to allow investigators into that area. Fire officials estimated they used more than one million gallons of water to battle the flames that were fed by large stocks of wood, adhesives, lacquers and other compounds.
While the pumps removed water, investigators concentrated on the ground floor.
Heavy equipment, including track hoes and a crane, were in use at the site Monday.
John Morrison, chief of the West Rowan Fire Department and president of the Rowan Fire and Rescue Association, has been on the scene for extended periods since Friday. He said Monday that the crane was being used to lower investigators into the basement, where they took pictures and may have collected samples.
Track hoes knocked down plant walls on the front side.
Morrison said it appears investigators are focusing on the area near where the firefighters were overcome ó possibly on different levels. That area appears to have been less than 50 feet inside the building, near the front office.
Firefighters from various departments have continued to monitor the scene along with Salisbury police officers.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette @salisburypost.com.
By Jessie Burchette