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Experts will study firefighters’ actions

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell will assemble a panel of fire service experts to study his department’s actions during the Salisbury Millwork fire.
But Parnell expressed strong confidence Friday that his firefighters, including the hose team on which two fatalities occurred March 7, performed as they were trained.
“I know firefighters of Salisbury did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Parnell said during a news conference in which he disclosed more specifically where the woodworking plant’s ruinous fire started.
Parnell said he knows that all his firefighters, including Justin Monroe and Victor Isler who died in the blaze, and Capt. Rick Barkley, who suffered burns, “did exactly what we do all the time.”
A visibly suffering Barkley attended the joint funeral service Thursday for Monroe, 19, and Isler, 40. Parnell said Barkley, who is recovering at home, still needs support and prayers from the community.
Parnell confirmed Friday that Isler and Monroe’s hose team was caught in the millworking part of the building, to the south of the office.
The $2 million Salisbury Millwork fire started in a void or attic-type space between a basement drop ceiling and the office floor above it.
“We know that’s where the fire started,” said Earl Woodham, a public information officer for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives,
There was no indication of malice, criminal activity or arson in connection to the fire, according to investigators.
The city of Salisbury released Friday its fire safety inspection reports on Salisbury Millwork for the past seven years, reports on three previous fire incident calls to Salisbury Millwork and the Fire Department’s pre-plan for dealing with fires at the millwork plant. (See related stories on this page.)
City Manager David Treme said the city wants to be “transparent, an open book, if you will.” He directed Parnell Friday morning to convene the panel of experts to study the March 7 fire.
Parnell said it wasn’t uncommon for cities and fire departments to have outside experts look at these kinds of fires, and their conclusions will “provide us comfort or guidance” with regard to Salisbury’s operating procedures that particular day.
Fire officials said the plant, rebuilt from a fire in 1959, did not have sprinklers.
It was mostly block brick wall with steel I-beam trusses and a composite roof.
Parnell, who was reporting the preliminary findings of the ATF-led investigative team, said the cause of the fire is still categorized as “undetermined.” But Woodham indicated that the ATF National Response Team, SBI and local investigators have a good clue ó just not enough to disclose it publicly yet.
“Absolutely, the fire investigators are very confident we know what caused the fire,” Woodham said.
The agency, for now, isn’t prepared scientifically to prove what caused that fire in a court of law “six months or six years down the road,” he said.
The scientific proof doesn’t raise it to the level of specifically identifying that the cause was something like a coffee pot, frayed wire or lightning strike, Woodham said.
The attic-type space between the basement ceiling and the office’s floor probably varied in height 8 to 24 inches, Parnell guessed.
Woodham said the basement’s drop ceiling had lights, and wires to those lights ran through the space in question.
He said he wouldn’t speculate whether dust, rats, wires or something else in the space started the fire.
As for explosions, Parnell said he heard small container explosions that morning ó maybe propane tanks ó that were typical of a manufacturing facility fire, but they were secondary and did not contribute to the cause or ignition of the fire.
“This was an abnormal fire,” Woodham said, describing how superheated air and smoke combined for “a very fast-moving fire” that could outrace humans. He added that a “perfect storm” of conditions were present.
The best people in the fire investigative world took part in the Salisbury investigation, the ATF agent said. The ATF’s National Response Team wound up its investigation Thursday.
Over the course of the six-day investigation, which started with the arrival of ATF and SBI agents March 7, some 100 people took part, Woodham judged.
The investigators came from the ATF, SBI, Rowan Sheriff’s Office, Salisbury Police and city fire department.
Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm said his department first contacted the ATF and SBI the morning of March 7, and some 20 agents were on the scene by that afternoon, followed by the arrival of the National Response Team the next day.
Wilhelm said Salisbury was fortunate to have the best investigators available.
Before ATF even received the call from Salisbury March 7, agents knew they would be needed, Woodham said.
“You guys were there,” he said. “We watched the news. We knew there was a problem here. We needed to come because the city of Salisbury had an awful lot on its plate 10 minutes after the fire started.”
The fire service panel will review Fire Department policies, procedures and operations for March 7. Parnell said he had yet to choose anyone for the panel.
Treme, the city manager, said any recommendations coming from the panel would be reviewed, evaluated and implemented if appropriate.
Meanwhile, Treme said, the city’s heart also goes out to the owners, employees and families of Salisbury Millwork.
“We recognize these folks need the full support of the community” to assure a successful recovery of the business, Treme said. He added that officials were encouraged that Salisbury Millwork owners want to continue the business and, with the support of others, “we hope this will become a reality sooner rather than later.”
Salisbury Millwork “is part of our city family as well,” Treme said.
The fire displaced 35 people. Damage estimates have ranged from $1.5 million to $2 million, but Woodham guessed that it could be higher with inventory and future business losses.
“Every day, the loss gets higher,” he said.
The exact size of the office, millwork, casework, receiving and warehouse areas destroyed has ranged from 80,000 square feet to 118,000 square feet, depending on sources. Woodham went with the 80,000-square-foot total Friday.
Salisbury firefighters returned to their stations for the 8 a.m. shift Friday, but Parnell said crews from Charlotte, Concord and other regional departments will continue to help man the stations until a contingent of Salisbury firefighters returns from Long Island, N.Y., and the Monday burial of Isler.
A group left Salisbury at about 8 Friday morning.
Parnell credited the community for tremendous support and encouraged people to keep giving to the fund established for Isler and Monroe at the Bank of North Carolina.
The fund, launched with a donation of $500 from the Bank of North Carolina, has already grown to more than $4,000. The fund will be administered by a three-person committee consisting of two firefighters and a representative from the Salisbury City Finance Department.
In general, Parnell asked people everywhere to check in and support the full-time and volunteer fire departments in their communities.
“Go tell them ‘Thank you,’ ” Parnell said. “Go pat them on the shoulder.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-423, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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