Friday, February 6, 2004

Warehouse fire wasn't arson

But elite federal team unable to pin down cause

By Brenna R. Kelly
and Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FLORENCE - An elite team of federal investigators determined Thursday that they can't figure out what caused a massive warehouse fire last week.

After three days investigating, a team of 20 experts from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said that the fire at the Boone-Kenton Warehouse last Saturday started in a section of warehouse used by Peg's Amish Furniture. But they aren't sure how.

The fire was not arson, said Florence Fire Chief Jim McMillen. The official cause will be listed as undetermined, he said.

The blaze, which destroyed six businesses, began in an area where Amish furniture was assembled, sanded and stained and where kerosene space heaters were used, McMillen said.

"We absolutely have no way to pinpoint if one, or both, or a combination" started the fire, he said.

Rags that employees used for furniture staining and kept in plastic bags were also in the area where the fire began, he said. When staining rags are stored in plastic they could spontaneously combust, he said.

Ron Partin, whose wife Peggy Partin owns Peg's, said he felt awful that the fire started in his wife's business, but wasn't surprised.

"We sort of figured it started at our business," he said. "Firefighters thought that from the beginning."

The heaters were turned off when employees left for the day, Ron Partin said. Employees had been staining a deck to be used for display at the retail store on U.S. 42, which was untouched by the fire.

Peg's had 40,000 square feet of space filled with Amish furniture in the northwest section of the 125,000-square-foot warehouse.

Five other businesses were destroyed in the fire that caused more than $1 million in damage. The other businesses were Cincinnati Wholesale Supply, Tim Gurren Wholesale Flooring, Viking Supply, M&D Insulation Co. and Boone-Kenton Warehouse. Fire officials said all had insurance.

Though the ATF's National Response Team could not figure out what caused the blaze, federal agents and local fire officials say calling in the team was the right thing to do.

"We have said there is no criminal activity," said Special Agent Pat Berarducci, an ATF spokesman. "That is a big statement, and we came up with it in three days. I think it is just as important to tell people there was not a crime as telling people there was criminal activity."

The National Response Team was developed in 1978 to help federal, state and local officials with investigations of significant arsons or explosions. This was the first time in at least seven years the team had been called to Greater Cincinnati, but it responded to two Kentucky fires in the last year.

The 20 agents, one from as far away as Seattle, spent more than 720 hours investigating the blaze. They brought a trailer, which acted as a command center, and rented a crane to rummage through the smoldering rubble.

The bill for the investigation hasn't been totaled, but it will include transportation, lodging, man-hours and heavy equipment.

"Local departments don't have the resources to do that," Berarducci said. "If they had to do this investigation on their own, it would have taken months and exhausted their budgets."

The Florence Fire Department and the Boone County Fire Investigation Team said they called in the ATF because the fire was so large. Florence Chief McMillen said he wouldn't hesitate to call in the team again. "It would have taken us weeks to do with our small team," McMillen said.


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