SBI, APD probe pair of weekend fires

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 18, 2006

AHOSKIE – Two major fires in downtown Ahoskie over a 16-hour span has left local officials searching for answers.

A total of five, Main Street businesses were affected, including Sunday’s seven-alarm blaze that totally destroyed Daniels Flea Market located at 301 East Main Street. That blaze, reported at 8:02 a.m., took the efforts of nearly 80 firefighters to finally bring under control.

“There were no flames showing on the outside, but it was fully engulfed inside upon our arrival,” Ahoskie Fire Chief Ken Dilday said of the Flea Market fire. “Using the help of the other fire departments, we were able to set-up a perimeter around the building and keep the fire contained to that immediate area.”

The accompanying smoke, which could be seen for miles around Ahoskie, enveloped the downtown business district. Wachovia Bank, directly across the street from the Flea Market, was kept under close observation by the firemen.

“We sent a few men up on top of the bank just to be on the safe side,” Dilday noted.

The Fire Chief did note that hot embers did briefly set some pine straw on fire at street level on the west side of the bank.

Meanwhile, workers at Jernigan Oil Company, located on the northeast side of the Flea Market, were taking no chances as they were seen removing important records. The fire caused no damage at that business.

According to Dilday, the building housing the Flea Market is owned by Chowan College, through a donation. It was a total loss despite the efforts of firefighters from Ahoskie, Aulander, Millennium, Murfreesboro, Union, Williamston and Winton.

“We really appreciate the assistance provided by our neighboring fire departments,” Dilday said. “We didn’t hesitate to call them for support and they didn’t hesitate to respond, especially considering it was a holiday weekend.”

The Williamston Fire Department was extremely helpful, sending a ladder truck that was able to pour 750 gallons of water a minute from high above the flames.

Workers from Commercial Ready Mix brought in excavating equipment later on Sunday to pull down the walls of the gutted building.

“(The walls) were just too unsafe to leave standing,” Dilday said. “Also, by pulling them down, we were able to more effectively get to a few remaining hot spots.”

An arson unit with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation is expected to arrive Wednesday, according to Detective Sgt. Jeremy Roberts of the Ahoskie Police Department. In the meantime, the streets surrounding the Flea Market will remain closed to vehicle and pedestrian traffic in order to keep the fire scene undisturbed.

“It’s expected to take a couple of days to sort through the rubble,” Roberts said. “From what we’ve been able to determine, multiple individuals rented space inside the Flea Market to sell their goods. There were a lot of material items inside.”

Roberts stopped short of deeming the cause of the fire as suspicious by saying, “We actually treat every fire scene we investigate as suspicious until the evidence we are able to obtain leads us to think otherwise.”

There was evidence collected by the SBI from the scene of Saturday’s fire, one which occurred at 4:18 p.m.

That blaze started in a storage shed located behind a residence at 112 Lloyd Street, rental property owned by Jim Ellis. The fire spread to the rear of four Main Street businesses n A.D. Jernigan Insurance, an office space rented by Catherine Allen, the J.C. Penney Catalog Store and a storage area used by Ahoskie Floral Gardens. All of that Main Street property is owned by Ed Robert Evans.

“There were some samples taken from the storage shed that have been sent to the SBI lab to check for the possibility of accelerants,” Roberts said.

Chief Dilday said the brunt of the business damage occurred at the J.C. Penney store.

“The fire got into the ceiling there,” he reported. “We didn’t know it, but there were some old rooms upstairs and that made it a bit more difficult to reach the fire. We had to cut two holes in the roof in order to knock down the fire.”

Dilday said the catalog store suffered fire, smoke and water damage. He said there was minor fire damage to the insurance office while the other two businesses suffered smoke and water damage.

Dixon’s Cleaners, located on the west corner of that block of buildings, escaped damage.

The Ahoskie Fire Department responded to Saturday’s blaze with 12 men and two units. Upon assessing the situation, Dilday summoned the Murfreesboro, Union and Winton fire departments for manpower assistance.

In both instances, Chief Dilday said he was extremely grateful for the help. He also praised the efforts of local citizens who supplied food, water and soft drinks to the firemen.

“I don’t know who they all were, but I’m going to find out and personally give them our thanks for helping the firemen,” Dilday concluded.

Damage estimates to the storage shed and all the businesses affected by the weekend fires have yet to be determined.