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Gastonia warehouse fire causes millions of dollars in damages

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

A fire at a historic Gastonia warehouse caused at least $4 million in damages and will likely disrupt daily operations for weeks, officials said Sunday.

More than 24 hours after the fire started in the building, in the 1900 block of West Poplar Street, firefighters remained on the scene to keep the area secured while the county fire marshal continued to investigate.

“We’re trying to hit the hot spots, but the fire isn’t going anywhere at this point,” Battalion Chief William Warren said.

Warren added that the fire is not likely to be completely extinguished until the several tons of debris are removed from the site, although he could not say how long that might take.

The three-alarm fire was reported about 8 a.m. Saturday at the building that residents know 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, Gastonia Fire Chief Phillip Welch and Mayor John Bridgeman said.

Preliminary information indicated that a transformer or transformers exploded, which ignited multiple fires throughout the building, the chief said Saturday.

About one-quarter of the 172,600-square-foot building was destroyed.

Standing on her front porch across the street from the warehouse on Sunday, Kathy Thompson pointed to a part of her home’s front vinyl siding that was warped by the blaze.

She recalled how she had woken early Saturday to the smell of smoke, initially thinking that her house was on fire. When several emergency personnel started arriving, she knew it was a much bigger fire than she first thought, she said.

“The smell and the sight are horrible,” she said. “I’ve got a bad scene from my front porch right now.”

Thompson said she was impressed by the firefighters’ efforts, though, adding “They handled it the best way they could with what was going on.”

Nearby, Gastonia Assistant Fire Marshal Billy Glover stood atop the rubble at the warehouse and looked at the ruins that used to be the building’s center.

Although the blaze was contained on Saturday afternoon, fires burned beneath the rubble, with swirls of smoke visible from blocks away. The former semi-truck ports overflowed with water from the firefighters’ efforts.

Glover estimated damages at $4 million to $6 million.

“This is a major fire due to the size and dollar loss,” Warren said.

Ken Phillips, a Wix Filters contract worker who transferred materials from the Poplar Street warehouse to other factories in the area, said he helped move several semi-trucks from the warehouse’s ports on Saturday to protect them.

At the time, the building was “barely smoking,” he said.

But the fire spread quickly, and crews were only able to move four of the trucks before everyone had to vacate the premises, he said.

Phillips has worked at the warehouse for 12 years. He said he is eager to learn Monday how the fire will affect his job and the general work flow at nearby plants that relied on the warehouse’s supplies.

“This is going to hurt production for a while,” he said. “Some people may have shorter hours now.”

Arriero: 704-804-2637; Twitter: @earriero
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