Cause of Robbins Mill Fire Being Investigated
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearm and Explosives National Response Team is investigating the massive fire Sunday at the old Robbins Mill.
The fire destroyed much of the rear of the 300,000-square-foot building and caused damage throughout the vacant plant. The county Fire marshal's office estimated that be-tween 60 percent and 70 percent of the building was damaged.
County Director of Public Safety Carlton Cole said that it was the largest structure fire he has seen in Moore County in years.
"Any time you have a fire this size," Cole said, "it makes it difficult to fight."
Firefighters brought the blaze under control late Sunday and worked throughout the night to extinguish it completely. It continued to smolder Monday. Crews were still on the scene Tuesday keeping an eye on hot spots and preventing flare-ups.
The mill had been empty for several years. No one was injured, though one firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion.
All 17 fire departments in the county sent personnel and equipment to assist. Firefighters from Montgomery, Chatham, Randolph and Lee counties were also called in to help. Cole estimated that 50 ladders, trucks, tankers and other pieces of equipment were on the scene.
Firefighters on ladder trucks sprayed water onto the building from every direction as an estimated 125 firefighters worked to knock down the four-alarm blaze. The American Red Cross, paramedics and other rescue workers provided support.
Residents gathered along Hemp Street to watch the burning mill, which used to house the Milliken Textile Plant, but had not been in service for years. It had recently been sold to a new owner.
The last time this many people came to the mill was Sept. 16, 2003, when then-Sen. John Edwards chose it as the backdrop to announce his first run for president. Edwards, who grew up in Robbins, worked at the mill during summer breaks while in high school. His father, Wallace, also worked there.
Robbins residents had been asked to conserve water to give the town's water system time to recover from the tremendous drain from the first few hours of fighting the fire, Cole said.
By afternoon Sunday, all the water was coming from area ponds. Throughout the day, tanker trucks sped down curved and hilly roads on their way to and from the plant.
The fire was reported at 9:56 a.m., Cole said. By the time firefighters arrived, a few minutes later, flames were coming through the roof. They quickly realized the gravity of the situation and called in the second, third and fourth alarms, which alerts every fire department in the county.
A huge column of brownish smoke with dark gray and even black areas near its base billowed from the plant. All of Robbins seemed to be engulfed in a gray haze. Firefighters evacuated a three-block area neighboring the plant because of smoke concerns. A shelter opened at North Moore High School, but no one took advantage of it.
"Several residents had been at church," Cole said Sunday afternoon. "They've not been able to go home."
They were allowed back into their homes late Sunday evening.
Cole said that he did not think that there were any dangerous substances in the materials in the building structure itself, such as asbestos, that could be hazardous to residents.
Keith Minor, who lives on Hemp Street, said he was walking down the road with a friend that morning when he smelled smoke. He said he was the one who first called 911 about the fire.
"We could see smoke rolling out," he said.
Minor sat on the porch of a Hemp Street home Sunday and watched the firefighters in action. About every minute, a tanker would speed by dropping off thousands of gallons of water. Trucks came from towns such as Coleridge, Northwest Pocket and Bonlee.
"I have never in my life seen so many fire trucks," Minor said.
Randall Moore, owner of Deep River Coffee Co., said he was impressed watching the firefighters work.
"They seemed to be doing double-time," he said. "It looked like a real good cooperative effort."
Minor wondered how the fire spread so rapidly. He said it seemed like the whole building caught on fire at once.
"I want to know what started it," he said. "We could see smoke coming out -- it was all the way across the building. And it's a huge building."
After about five hours of battling the fire from the outside of the building, Cole said firefighters felt they had prevented it from spreading farther.
"We think that the aerial devices have stopped it from spreading," he said. "We're sending people inside at this point."
Robbins Town Manager Brant Sikes said that the mill was once the largest employer in Moore County.
EVH Supply Co. of Randleman had bought the building in January. Minor said he had seen workers salvaging materials from the building. The metal had been clearly cut away at one end of the plant. Sikes said he didn't know what EVH's plans had been for the mill.
The State Bureau of Investigation and the ATF are assisting the investigation. The national ATF investigative team arrived at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Sikes said he was pleased with the help offered to combat the huge fire and investigate its cause.
"I was so impressed with the coordinated effort," he said. "It worked like a well-oiled machine."
Contact Matthew Moriarty at 693-2479 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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