Investigators from the state Fire Marshal’s Office will be in Macon next week to help determine what started a fire that ripped through a gymnasium near the old A.L. Miller High School early Friday.
Flames tore through the gym and a cafeteria area of the school complex on Montpelier Avenue about 12:30 a.m.
Macon-Bibb County firefighters arrived at the major blaze to find fire shooting through the roof in the back corner of the gym adjacent to the site’s Miller A building.
Against the dark sky, the fire could be seen from several blocks away on Interstate 75 near Eisenhower Parkway.
Capt. Rex Sampson, the first incident commander on the scene, stepped in a large hole and was injured, said Macon-Bibb Fire Chief Marvin Riggins.
Sampson sustained injuries to his lower back, hip and “lower right extremity,” but he was on the mend Friday afternoon, Assistant Fire Chief Shane Edwards said.
“He is back at home resting,” Edwards said.
Jim Huffstetler, project manager for the pending renovation project on campus, read the news first thing Friday morning on macon.com.
“I got this sick feeling in my stomach,” said Huffstetler, who rushed to the scene from north Bibb County. “It was nerve-wracking.”
Upon arrival, he realized the classic castlelike structure, which will be the centerpiece of the development, was not affected.
The gym was not part of the planned A.L. Miller Village, but it had been discussed as a possible location for a new Senior Center, he said.
The fire might have changed the order of construction on the A.L. Miller Village project, but it will not hinder progress.
“That’s still a go,” Huffstetler said. “I don’t see it really affecting our timeline that greatly.”
Thick smoke and embers were blowing from the gym as the flames raged in the largely wooden building.
Crews worked for hours fighting the flames that devoured the gym, with hoses still running well into Friday afternoon.
Firefighters on aerial ladders poured water on the adjacent classroom building to try to keep the fire from spreading to the old Miller A classroom building. Fire did damage some of the mostly concrete and masonry building, but Huffstetler said it wasn’t beyond repair.
“It’s structurally sound. It’s just got to be cleaned up,” he said.
About 3 a.m., smoke started filtering out of the edges of that boarded-up building, but there were no visible flames on the outside.
Firefighters vented some of the windows and doors, but initially stayed outside for safety reasons, Riggins said.
“I’m concerned about a basement collapse inside this building,” Riggins said shortly after the flames spread.
While there was some fire inside, the building sustained mostly smoke and water damage.
“We have been able to keep it off the third building,” Riggins said.
Firefighters had the blaze contained by about 4:30 a.m.
Bibb Campus Police Chief Russell Bentley was one of the first boys to attend Miller A in 1970.
“This is a historical part of our community,” Bentley said, watching the fire. “We were glad to know that someone was coming in to renovate and to help revitalize this area. It’s a concern.”
Work is expected to begin next month on the historic old girls’ school building, which will become apartments.
Renzo Construction and Oracle Design also have plans to renovate houses on Birch Street for the project.
Dave Gowan, safety and risk manager for the Bibb School District, emailed school administration about the fire, although the complex had not been used by the school system for decades.
A school maintenance worker familiar with the site helped firefighters navigate through the structures.
Fire investigator Steve Wesson called the blaze suspicious. No utilities were hooked up to the vacant buildings. The full investigation into potential arson or other causes won’t be complete for a “little while,” Wesson said Friday afternoon.
Once the burned buildings cool down, he will begin gathering evidence to determine if the fire was deliberately set.
“We don’t have an exact cause,” he said, noting the visit by state fire marshals early next week. “It’s still under investigation.”
Montpelier Avenue and other roads around the building were closed for several hours but reopened by mid-afternoon, except for the road that runs behind the gym itself between Hendley and Birch streets. Edwards said that there was no specific concern about the building collapsing, but any time the roof burns off a structure, the walls become less stable.
“There’s always a possibility of a collapse,” he said.
Anyone with information about the fire or a potential cause is asked to call Georgia Arson Control at 1-800-282-5804 or the Macon-Bibb Fire Department at 478-751-9180.
“We’d be glad to hear from them,” Wesson said.
Telegraph writer Jeremy Timmerman contributed to this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303 or find her on Twitter@liz_lines.