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Arson not suspected in First Fiber plant fire

Jeff Bobo • Apr 10, 2007 at 11:24 AM

Firefighters battle a blaze at the First Fiber plant as plumes of thick, black smoke fill the sky Monday. David Grace photo.

Fire destroys Hawkins County plant | Fire destroys factory in Phipps Bend Industrial Park


There won't be a state fire marshal investigation of the blaze that destroyed the First Fiber Inc. plant at the Phipps Bend Industrial Park Monday.

There were, however, insurance adjusters from First Fiber's insurance provider at the site Tuesday making preparations for their routine inquiries.

Carters Valley Volunteer Fire Department communication officer Mike Yates said Tuesday he'd interviewed First Fiber employees and found no reason to believe anyone would have intentionally set the fire.

Upon reporting that to the state fire marshal, the state decided to leave the investigation to the insurance company.

"There is nothing indicating a suspicious fire right now," Yates said. "We talked to the plant supervisors, and they had no reason to believe that they had any disgruntled employees. With that the fire marshal said they would not be coming.

"Most insurance companies have an outstanding team of investigators, and they normally come in behind the fire marshal and do their own investigation anyway."

The fire started about 10 a.m. Monday in an area at the rear of the plant where the company stored as much as 20,000 pounds of paper and about 250,000 pounds of polypropylene, which is a form of plastic.

The company manufactures those materials into an absorbent product for petroleum spill cleanups.

By the time firefighters arrived on the scene Monday morning, those materials were fully engulfed in flames, and the building was beyond saving. Smoke from the blaze was visible as far east as Kingsport and as far west as Rogersville, about 15 miles in each direction. By midafternoon the biggest part of the fire had burned itself out.

Firefighters remained on the scene late into the evening battling hot spots, and then returned at dawn Tuesday to resume that task.

"The plan for today is to try to remove some of the remaining structure to get to the hot spots still burning and extinguish those fires," Yates said from the scene Tuesday morning. "We've probably got a dozen areas that are still burning pretty good, so we're going to take a piece of heavy machinery and try to remove parts of the metal so we can get in there to it."

First Fiber President Sandy Willis said Tuesday that she and other company officials are already beginning the rebuilding. She said the priority for Monday was registering employees for state unemployment benefits, and on Tuesday she was looking for a temporary office to use as home base while the plant is rebuilt.

"We hope to have an office in a day or two, and we're contacting the vendors to find out what the costs will be to rebuild everything," Willis said Tuesday. "We wouldn't be able to utilize a temporary location. We're actually looking at rebuilding because the equipment we had is specialized equipment.

"We've notified all of our customers who will be affected, and they're putting contingency plans into place also."

First Fiber is the second plant in Phipps Bend to burn down in this decade. Two lots over from the First Fiber rubble is the rubble that still has not been cleaned up from a 2001 fire that destroyed the Kingsport Packaging plant.

Neither First Fiber nor Kingsport Packaging had a fire sprinkler system. Willis said the building was equipped with a "Flamex" spark detection and extinguishing system, but not a building-wide sprinkler system.

"As far as the building requirements, Phipps Bend doesn't require it (sprinkler systems)," Willis said. "We had an alarm system and security system in place. We're still finding out what happened."

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