N.C. Firefighters Battle Massive Warehouse Fire

April 13--Firefighters are still working to bring a massive blaze Saturday at a Gastonia warehouse under control, and crew says they could remain at the scene throughout the evening.

The fire was reported around 8 a.m. at a warehouse in the 1900 block of West Poplar Street. The building is known as the Mutual Mill and most recently was used by Wix Filters, said Mayor John Bridgeman.

Gastonia Fire Chief Phillip Welch said preliminary information indicates that a transformer or transformers exploded, sparking the fire. But it is not yet clear what caused the explosions.

Around 3:15 p.m., Welch said the fire had been brought almost under control. The building had a sprinkler system, but Welch said high stacks of paper, metal and filters in the building prevented the water from being able to fully reach the fire.

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

About 25 percent of the 172,600-square foot building has been destroyed, the fire chief said.

No injuries have been reported so far. Earlier, a team of firefighters had gone into the building to try to extinguish the fire. But with conditions growing more dangerous, Welch ordered the personnel out of the building after a few hours.

In all, more than 80 firefighters from 16 units responded to the scene, along with other emergency personnel. During the day, about 20 members of Temple Baptist Church, which is next door to the mill, brought firefighters food and fresh water.

The mill "was the cornerstone of this community ... until the textile dropped off," said Scott Whitener, associate pastor of Temple Baptist Church.

Roads surrounding the mill have been closed as crews work to get the blaze under control. Several residents who live along nearby Littlejohn Road said they haven't been able to get home all day.

Meanwhile, Temple Baptist is canceling a spring concert it had planned for Saturday evening.

Gastonia resident Dan Ragan, 89, said his family has been in the city's mill business for decades. His cousin, Gastonia historian Robert Ragan, wrote a book on the industry called "Textile Heritage."

According to the book, the Mutual Mill was built in 1916 by Charles B. Armstrong. The Armstrong family, which is related to the Ragans, operated cotton mills in the area for several years.

Ragan said his cousin's book described the Mutual Mill as the first in the industry to be owned in larger part by employees, hence the name "Mutual."

He said that all of the mills went bankrupt during the Great Depression, but after a few years, Textiles Incorporated took over the businesses and reopened them. The mills produced materials during war, Ragan said.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Ragan said Dixie Yarn bought the Mutual Mill. Then in 1988, Japanese-owned China Grove Cotton Mills bought it.

The mill closed in the mid-2000s, Ragan said, but he didn't know the exact date.

Mayor Bridgeman said he believed Wix Filters, an international company founded in Gastonia that produces a variety of filters, was using the mill as a storage facility.

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

The building sits on about six acres of land and is more than 172,600 square feet. Records show the building was valued at about $1.02 million. Staff writer April Bethea contributed.

Copyright 2013 - The Charlotte Observer

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