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Firefighters battle massive warehouse fire in Gastonia

GASTONIA Firefighters worked through the day Saturday to bring a massive blaze at a historic Gastonia warehouse under control, and crews planned to monitor hot-spots and assess damage well into Sunday morning.

The three-alarm fire was reported about 8 a.m. at a warehouse in the 1900 block of West Poplar Street. Gastonia residents know the building as the Mutual Mill, which functioned as a cotton mill in the early 20th century.

Most recently, Wix Filters used the mill as a storage facility for raw and finished products, said Gastonia Fire Chief Phillip Welch and Mayor John Bridgeman.

Preliminary information indicates that a transformer or transformers exploded, the chief said, which ignited multiple fires throughout the 172,600-square-foot building. Fire investigators were working to determine what caused the explosions.

About 25 percent of the warehouse is destroyed, Welch said.

Initially, a team of firefighters tried to mitigate the damage by taking hoses inside the building. But the situation grew dangerous because the building’s sprinkler system was partially blocked by high stacks of paper, metal and filters, Welch said.

“We spent two hours inside, then had to move into defensive mode,” he said.

For the next several hours, firefighters focused on preventing the flames from spreading to nearby houses and buildings.

Just after 3 p.m., most of the fire was under control and no injuries had been reported. But authorities shut down the roads surrounding the warehouse, leaving several residents stranded at nearby convenience store Ken’s Superette.

“I went out to run errands this morning, and now I can’t get to my house,” said 65-year-old Robert Bryant, who lives on Littlejohn Road near the old mill.

Fire officials said the roads were to remain closed late into Saturday evening as they secured the building and ensured the smoldering ruins of the warehouse’s center didn’t spark fires in the sections that were still intact.

The fire was large enough to appear on Doppler radar images of the area.

In all, more than 80 firefighters from 16 units responded to the scene, along with other emergency personnel. During the day, members of Temple Baptist Church , which is next door to the mill, helped the Red Cross provide food and cold drinks for the firefighters.

The church canceled a spring concert that about 500 people planned to attend Saturday evening because fire crews expected to still be working next door.

“Outreach is the highest ministry that we can do,” Associate Pastor Scott Whitener said as a group of soot-covered firefighters took a short break in the church dining hall. “We want to help these guys putting their lives on the line.”

A historic building

Residents said the warehouse is a well-known part of Gastonia’s textile heritage. The Mutual Mill was built in 1916 by Charles B. Armstrong, according to a book by Gastonia historian Robert Ragan.

“The mill was the cornerstone of this community until the textiles dropped off,” Whitener said.

Dan Ragan, a cousin of the historian, said the mill got the name “mutual” because it was the first in the industry to be owned in large part by the employees.

All of the mills went bankrupt during the Great Depression, said Dan Ragan, whose family has been in the city’s mill business for decades. But after a few years, Textiles Incorporated took over the businesses and reopened them.

The president of one of the textile companies that operated out of Mutual Mill in the 1990s said Saturday he was sad to hear about the fire.

“It was a wonderful mill with wonderful employees who made a high-quality product. It was well-received in the marketplace,” said Don Warren, president of China Grove Textiles Inc. while it was based at the mill for eight years.

Warren said the Hanes clothing company was China Grove’s biggest customer and eventually bought and owned the mill for a few years.

The mill closed in the mid-2000s, Dan Ragan said. Neither he nor Warren knew exactly when.

Gaston County property tax records show that Gastonia Poplar Invest LLC bought the building in 2011 for $90,000.

The building sits on about 6 acres. County records show the property had a total value of nearly $1.2 million.

Staff writer April Bethea contributed.

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