Flames destroy Grimes Mill

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Update: The back wall of the second floor has collapsed as the fire continues to burn what is left of Grimes Mill.

Fire investigators must wait until the fire has been completely extinguished before they are able to assess the damage to the mill. Salisbury Police Capt. Shelia Lingles said police investigators are conducting interviews from news media and bystanders who may have taken early video.

Lingle said the police are working with the ATF, the Salisbury Fire Department and other investigating agencies.

Fire Chief Bob Parnell told reporters during a news conference that it could take days before the building is safe enough for investigators to go inside what’s left of the structure.

Update:Fire continues to burn in the gutted remains of Grimes Mill. Firefighters and utility crews are on the scene.

The area has been cordoned off and people are being kept away from the mill because of fears the remaining structure will collapse.

Authorities say more information could be disclosed this morning.

By Hugh Fisher

SALISBURY — A five-alarm blaze destroyed Salisbury’s historic Grimes Mill late Wednesday evening.

Fire crews arrived on the Church Street scene to find flames already engulfing the wood-and-brick roller mill, owned by the Historic Salisbury Foundation.

The first call for firefighters was dispatched at 9:44 p.m., according to Elaney Hasselmann, public information officer for the city of Salisbury.

Police officers who were first to arrive on the scene reported flames showing from through the windows.

Within minutes, the fire had spread throughout the wood-frame structure, breaching the roof of the mill.

Fire crews never went inside, Hasselmann said.

The blaze was so intense that steam rose from rain-dampened ground as much as 60 feet away.

As parts of the building’s roof collapsed, firefighters backed away from the structure and continued to pour water on it.

At one point, Hasselmann said, six ladder trucks were spraying water down onto the burning mill.

Fire Marshal Terry Smith said it was unclear what had caused the blaze.

He said no injuries had been reported.

Built in 1896, Grimes Mill operated until 1982, producing flour and feed products.

After the foundation purchased it, the mill was used for years for fundraising events, but also stood in need of repair.

More recently, volunteers from the foundation had cleaned the mill and were restoring the machinery within.

It was opened to the public as part of the foundation’s 2012 OctoberTour of historic properties.

As word spread of the fire, onlookers gathered in the blocks surrounding the mill, and members of the foundation made their way to the scene.

About a block from the mill, Doug Black, vice president of the Historic Salisbury Foundation, stood with his colleagues.

Black said he and volunteers had been working at the mill until about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

They were preparing for school tours that were expected to start in the coming months, Black said.

“When we left, everything was turned off, everything was locked up,” said Black, watching as ladder trucks slowly doused the flames.

Asked whether a trespasser might have started the fire, Black said there had been problems with vagrants in Grimes Mill in the past, “but not for months now, maybe as long as a year.”

“We just hope no one was hurt,” Black said.

Although flour dust can be very flammable when airborne, Black said there was not enough flour residue left inside after 30 years to start a fire.

Black said, “We always told the fire department, if ever there is a blaze, don’t go in. It’s kindling.”

Nearby, foundation treasurer Ed Clement looked on, sorrowful.

“A lot of history lost,” Clement said. “There was still original, working machinery in there.”

Brian Davis, executive director, said he had a meeting planned with the Charlotte Film Commission next week to see about filming at Grimes Mill.

Aside from the historic mill itself, parts of the building were used to store items used at foundation fundraisers.

Black said the original benches from the Salisbury Depot were also inside.

“I’m heartsick,” said Mary James, member of the foundation’s board of trustees. She and her family watched from about three blocks away, along with some 30 others who parked and walked to the hill overlooking Grimes Mill.

James said her son, Robyn, saw the flames through a window of their home in the 700 block of South Fulton Street.

“The sky was completely lit up,” he said.

Although there was no clear sign of how the fire started, “It’s hard to believe that this is not vandalism,” Mary James said.

Jim Carli, site manager for Grimes Mill with the Historic Salisbury Foundation, arrived about 45 minutes after the first call went out.

He said there had been hopes of getting enough of the original roller mill machinery running again to do historic demonstrations, he said.

“Getting this thing turning again was on my bucket list,” Carli said.

Smith said the State Bureau of Investigation’s fire investigation unit had already been notified Wednesday night, as is standard when “a large loss” occurs.

Hasselmann confirmed this, saying that the investigation would likely get underway today.

Fire crews remained on the scene overnight to battle any flare-ups.

Hasselmann said that nearby buildings, including city-owned properties, were never in danger.

Hasselmann said that firefighters from Salisbury, South Salisbury, Spencer, Rockwell, Granite Quarry, Locke, Cleveland and Kannapolis departments were among those who responded to the five-alarm blaze.

Law enforcement personnel and the Rowan County Rescue Squad were also on the scene.

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.