Fire that destroyed historic East Spencer building was accidentally set

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, January 17, 2023

EAST SPENCER — A massive fire that burned for hours during the evening and overnight Jan. 7 that ended in the total destruction of a former school and administration building was accidentally set, according to East Spencer Police Chief John Fewell.

In a brief interview Sunday, Fewell said juveniles were responsible for setting the blaze that left little more than the front facade and the basement standing of the building at 110 North Long St. The fire has been investigated by Fewell and the East Spencer police department, the East Spencer Fire Department and the Rowan County Emergency Services Fire Division.

“My thoughts are that they did not go in there with the intention of setting the building on fire,” said Fewell.

At this point, he said he will present his findings to the juvenile court counselor, who will determine how to proceed with the cases. A counselor has several options in choosing how to move forward, including diversion, meaning the juvenile will have to participate in some type of program but will not have to face charges, or formal processing of charges. While official charge terminology is the same as in adult court, juvenile cases are handled differently and almost all are confidential and not public record, in order to give minors an opportunity to start with a clean slate at 18 and not have to carry poor decisions made in younger years as they go forward. That means Fewell is unable to release any additional details.

“It’s a relief for the community to have this solved, but it’s also a tremendous loss,” said Town Manager Michael Douglas. Both he and Fewell did say they are glad none of the minors nor anyone else was injured in the fire.

The fire was initially reported around 6 p.m. by a neighbor who told a firefighter at the fire department just across the street from the building that he smelled smoke. Neither of them could see any smoke initially, however. So the firefighter who was on duty and another who was at the fire station began to search for the source. The first structure fire alarm was called in around 6:30 p.m. when smoke was seen coming from the old administrative building.

The historic structure was originally built as a school in 1903, and in 1921, the current two-story structure was built. Through the years it has housed a number of things, including a school, Rowan County museum offices and the Rowan-Salisbury School administrative offices.

East Spencer Fire Chief Shawn McBride last week praised his own department and all those who came to assist, noting that East Spencer is a volunteer/part time department, and mutual aid is essential.

“We often have one man overnight, but it takes three men to operate a fire truck,” he said. “Which means we have to wait for volunteers to arrive. We do the best we can with what we have.” He added that night’s response was quick, and between his own department and those coming from numerous surrounding towns, they were able to contain the fire to one building, saving a second structure behind the front building as well as neighboring houses.

Currently the town’s code enforcement officer has notified the property owner that a fence must be put up surrounding the property for security purposes to keep anyone from entering the building and getting hurt.

“The town is also working with the owner to either restore or demolish the building within the next 120 days,” said Douglas.