The Macon-Bibb County Fire Department has turned over its investigation into the Atlantic Cotton Mill fire to an insurance company, with officials declaring the blaze was started accidentally but the exact cause may never be known.
Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said at a news conference Monday that the fire likely started in warehouses just north of the main building. Sparks from metal cutting or something else could have smoldered long before the blaze broke out, he said.
The fire’s source “could have fallen hours or days before,” Riggins said. Firefighters found no evidence that metal cutting and other salvage operations had been done in the area on March 24, the day of the fire.
Riggins said firefighters turned over control of the scene March 29 to property owner Mercer University, which is having Travelers Insurance continue the investigation. Macon police, Bibb County sheriff’s deputies, and state and federal fire investigators also helped with the investigation. Riggins said firefighters found no evidence of a crime.
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The first sign of the fire was reported by a man who went to a fire station and said, “There’s something burning behind Kroger.” The first firefighters found several sets of buildings blazing, and winds whipping between 20-25 mph, officials said.
The second fire truck on scene sprayed water to protect an apartment building close to the flaming warehouses. The heat there got so fierce that window blinds inside the apartments melted, Assistant Fire Chief Cliff Rushin said.
Rushin said the first firefighters tried to fight the fire from inside the structures, attempting to cut off the blaze before it spread through the main mill building. Firefighters were inside about 20 minutes and couldn’t get through heavy smoke and flames to the second story.
The flames were fanned by the strong winds through the empty windows. The mill had wood floors that had been oiled for decades. Home to cotton products and naturally occurring cottonseed oil, the mill itself was intensely flammable.
While they were fighting the blaze, firefighters didn’t realize the fire had hooked around the complex and was quickly spreading. Rushin said he moved through the main building looking for a place to cut the fire off again, and heard the fire roaring through the floor above him as some flames dropped down to the first floor.
Rushin said he realized half of the main building had been on fire and called for a “code red,” meaning all firefighters should be evacuated. About four minutes later, the roof collapsed. Just a minute or two after that, flames began shooting from the last of the windows in the mill building.
With a single road leading into the complex which was built in 1889 and added on to in the 1920s and ’30s, firefighters had few places from which to fight the blaze. Officials long ago stopped allowing construction to have such limited access.
Capt. Tom Musselwhite, a 39-year firefighter who leads the investigations department, said it would be impossible to determine the exact cause of the fire without digging all the rubble from the old warehouses.
Musselwhite said the mill had a sprinkler system, but water was turned off years ago so it wouldn’t contaminate the area’s drinking water. If the fire occurred several months from now, the sprinkler system likely would have been functioning and the fire’s progress would have been slowed, Musselwhite said.
The mill complex had been slated for a $13 million renovation that would have created about 100 lofts and other housing units for low-to-moderate income families. Funding would have included about $2 million in historic tax credits and a $1.5 million state grant.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.