WISE — Coeburn and Wise County officials expressed dismay and outrage that a Coeburn volunteer firefighter has been accused of setting fire to a beloved Wise County landmark.
Federal authorities on Wednesday charged Nicholas “Nick” Owens, 22, with destroying the High Knob Observation Tower on Halloween. The tower site is within the Jefferson National Forest’s Clinch Ranger District, and crimes committed on national forest property fall under federal jurisdiction. U.S. Forest Service investigators based out of Jefferson/George Washington National Forest headquarters in Roanoke are in charge of the case and have been assisted by the Wise County Sheriff’s Department.
Brian McGinn, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Roanoke, on Wednesday said Owens has been charged with arson on federal government land and released on a $10,000 unsecured bond.
McGinn said a preliminary hearing has been scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on March 13 in U.S. District Court in Abingdon. A trial date may be scheduled at that time. Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer is the lead federal prosecutor on the case.
Clinch District Ranger Ron Bush said he wasn’t aware a break in the case was nigh.
“I’m probably as surprised as anybody,” Bush said. “I know they’ve been working on this a long time now. Boy, that was good news this morning. A surprise to me, but a very good surprise.”
It wasn’t so welcome a surprise to Coeburn officials.
“I am shocked and appalled,” said Town Manager Loretta Mays in a prepared statement. “Our volunteer fire department is excellent, and this is certainly no reflection on the department or its other members.”
Coeburn Mayor G. Lynn Wells said the affair “is an isolated incident and should not reflect upon the Coeburn volunteer firefighters.”
Coeburn Volunteer Fire Department Chief Cliff Hawkins said Owens was voted in as a probationary member of the unit just two days before the High Knob Tower was burned to the ground.
“Mr. Owens has been placed on suspension until his trial. If he is convicted, he will be terminated,” Hawkins said.
Wise County Sheriff Ronnie Oakes said an occasional bad apple should not be allowed to spoil a superb barrelful of volunteer firefighters in the county and elsewhere.
“You really appreciate those people who volunteer their time to protect the lives and property of the rest of us,” Oakes said. “When somebody is involved in something like this, it’s just completely wrong. But there are more good people than bad. It’s just 1 percent of those people who commit these kinds of crimes. I don’t know why they do it, but I really appreciate the ones who do a good job, and I condemn those bad people.”
Wise Countians were outraged by the destruction of the tower, and a grass-roots effort evolved to raise money to rebuild the tower. A fire watch tower of some sort has existed at the 4,162-foot elevation site above Norton since the early 1930s. The architecturally fetching three-story wood structure that was torched on Halloween was built in the 1970s by the Flatwoods Job Corps Center.
A task force organized by U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th District, includes the Wise County Chamber of Commerce to assist in the rebuilding effort, and group members prefer to look toward the future than dwell on the recent past.
“We are continuing to work with corporations with major donations, as well as anyone else who might give. We’re taking comments on future plans for the tower and how folks might like to see other amenities there,” said Chamber Executive Director Joyce Payne.
“We’re happy to get beyond the horror of the tower being destroyed, and we’re looking forward to having enhanced facilities there,” Payne said. “We do get thousands of people visiting here who go to the Knob. That’s a special place and a visitor priority. They want to go where there’s no traffic or noise. It’s a beloved place by people across the United States.”
Payne will be among those in St. Paul today to accept a donation for the tower reconstruction project from Dominion, the utility that wants to build a 585 megawatt coal-fired power plant at the Virginia City site of the town. She said Dominion was recently ranked No. 11 in Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine’s “100 Best Corporate Citizens.”
Dominion was the second-highest ranked utility, Payne said, getting high marks (61st) in environmental concerns among the 1,000 companies considered, and 89th in philanthropy.
One Coeburn firefighter said the community should be equally charitable before rushing to judgment against one of his fellow firefighters, who he said served two tours in Iraq. Coeburn VFD firefighter Ryan Hollyfield said Owens is still presumed innocent until proven guilty and deserves the benefit of the doubt for the time being.
“Well, you know, I don’t know if it was him or not,” Hollyfield said. “It’s been a long investigation, and we just have to see how it turns out.”