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Erwin residents recall building's history as cause to fire sought

JIM WOZNIAK • Apr 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM

ERWIN — Smoke still filled the air and periodic fires broke out in the rubble Thursday as firefighters continued their efforts to snuff out a blaze that started a day earlier and left the old Town Hall building looking like a bombed structure from World War II photos.

Erwin Fire Chief James D. Bailey said authorities still had not determined a cause for the fire, which first was noticed about 7:45 p.m. with puffs of smoke and rapidly became an inferno. He said arson was not suspected but that an investigative team would look into a host of possible causes.

“Earlier this morning, we formed an investigative task force made up of the fire marshal’s office, the city police department and the state bomb and arson division and the (U.S.) Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,” Bailey said. “We’ve found no evidence that leads us to believe that the fire was arson in origin, but we’ve not been able to rule out several causes that we’re still looking into.

“We’re probably going to be examining debris for the next couple of weeks trying to pin down an exact cause. We may never know exactly what started the fire.”

Some of the potential causes under consideration are electrical issues and an accident, Bailey said. He said it appears the fire most likely started on the second floor.

Bailey said spot fires likely will continue in the rubble for a few days.

Bailey said he asked a federal agency to investigate to avoid a potential conflict of interest because he is the city’s fire marshal and has ties to the state.

For safety reasons, part of the building that is deemed dangerous is scheduled to be demolished today, Bailey said. Most of Gay Street was closed as was half of Church Avenue.

Firefighters sifted through the rubble Thursday while engineer Gary Tysinger, Erwin Building Inspector Brian Hensley and investigators reviewed what transpired.

Meanwhile, people periodically stopped by the building Thursday to view the remains, and a few shared their memories, such as having participated in an event in the former second-story theater and working in the building. Doris Hensley, who worked for the town government in the building for 19 years, was given a brick and a piece of the second floor ceiling that was in the rubble.

“It’s really like losing an old friend,” she said of the building. “There’s a lot of history. The building has a lot of character. And a lot of friends were made in that building, also.”

“Obviously it’s a sad loss of history, and that’s a bad thing,” Police Chief Regan Tilson said. “The positive side of that is there was no life lost. And that’s the main objective.”

He commended the fire department.

“We could have literally lost downtown the way the fire was burning,” he said. “They did a fantastic job in keeping it under control, containing it to that one area.”

Bailey said he made a strategic decision Wednesday night to focus on protecting the structures around the old Town Hall building when he learned there was no one inside the building.

When the fire hit, Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris decided to evacuate the nearby jail because smoke was coming into the facility. He also was concerned about embers floating in the air.

Initially, inmates were taken either to Pentecostal Holiness Church in north Erwin or the Carter County Jail, but about 15 from the church later were taken to the Washington County Detention Center. The inmates were back in the Unicoi County Jail on Thursday, Harris said.

“Everything worked like clockwork,” Harris said.

The building, opened in 1923, was a three-story landmark that was the seat of the town’s government until 1996. Since then, the first floor has been used for a variety of purposes, including training by the Erwin Fire Department. The second floor was used for storage but is best known for its past use as a theater. The Masons owned the interior of the third floor.

Noel Muhn, secretary of Centennial Lodge F&AM, No. 491, was pleased the lodge’s minutes were salvaged but nonetheless noted many items could not be saved.

“We’re all very saddened by this,” he said. “It’s very devastating. It’s not the oldest lodge in the county. Flag Pond was the oldest lodge, and they just joined our lodge through lack of membership. Some of their furniture and their records, some of theirs are older than ours. We had just recently transferred their stuff here to Erwin.”

He said the most precious document the Masons had was their Bible, on which many people “have taken their obligation.” He said he is sure it was destroyed in the blaze.

Muhn said the lodge does not know what steps it will take, saying it cannot move its meeting until the grand lodge grants a dispensation. But he said the Unicoi lodge has offered use of its building temporarily.

The adjacent Unicoi County Courthouse sustained some damage, primarily with windows that busted due to the fire’s heat. Workers installed plywood in the open windows.

Clerk and Master Teresa Simerly entered her second-floor office, which is less than a stone’s throw from the old Town Hall building, about 7:30 a.m. and found a window facing old Town Hall had blown out and blinds had melted a little from the heat. There also was water damage. The good news was no computers or records were harmed.

“The firefighters did a great job, too, containing the damage because the whole town could have gone,” she said.

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