Tainted Kerosene Blamed for Rocky Mount, North Carolina Fire

ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. (AP) -- A mixture of gasoline and kerosene that was accidentally sold at a convenience store is responsible for at least one of four blazes over four days, authorities said.

There also are some indications that the other three fires stemmed from the contaminated kerosene, said Keith Harris, Rocky Mount's assistant fire chief.

The Trade Mart on Sunset Avenue sold 850 gallons of tainted kerosene between Jan. 11 and Jan. 22, Harris said. ``During that time frame, there were four incidents in Rocky Mount that were related to kerosene heaters, which is unusual,'' he said.

Store owner Walter Williams said the store has recovered about 60 gallons of the fuel. He attributed the error to the fuel transportation company.

``You have to realize that a transport may have four or five compartments,'' he said. ``Apparently when (the driver) hooked up, he pulled the wrong valve. He was not aware of what he had done.''

Discrepancies led the store to call the N.C. Department of Agriculture for testing, he said.

Of the four fires under scrutiny, one of the victims has a receipt from a kerosene sale at Trade. Humberto Escobar escaped injury when his kerosene heater ignited Jan. 18, Harris said.

Escobar wrapped the heater in a blanket and carried it outside, and the inside of his mobile home sustained minor damage.

Also on Jan. 18, a house sustained heavy damage after a fire started while occupant James Lee was filling a kerosene heater. Lee, 50, his 82-year-old mother, Mary Lee, and his girlfriend all escaped without serious injury, but their house was destroyed.

Although he doesn't have a receipt, Lee told investigators that he always buys kerosene at the Winoco on Sunset Avenue, Harris said. Winoco is the previous name of the Trade Mart.

A kerosene heater-related fire two days before at a third home caused minor damage, Harris said. The resident, Joseph Avent, extinguished most of the blaze with a garden hose before firefighters arrived, Harris said.

Avent said he also bought kerosene from the Trade Mart, but he has no receipt.

In the fourth blaze under investigation, six people escaped a burning house. One of the occupants, 36-year-old Anthony Williams, carried the burning heater and a kerosene can outside, but not before the fire spread to a couch and then other parts of the home.

No one was seriously hurt, but the family was left homeless.

The N.C. Department of Agriculture tested remnants of the kerosene from the fourth fire and found the fuel was tainted with gasoline, Harris said. There was not enough remaining kerosene from the other fires to be tested, he added.

``This is the second time in about a year that something like this has happened,'' Harris said. ``A similar incident occurred in Nash County, and we're concerned and taking steps to ensure that this doesn't happen again.

``We're in contact with the oil distribution companies to see if anything needs to be changed procedurally so this won't happen again.''