County firefighters continue fight against Faison warehouse blaze
By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 28, 2009 1:46 PM
Firefighters from Belfast and around the area take a break to regroup as they continue their work to control a blaze that claimed a Faison warehouse Sunday night. Firefighters are still on the scene today as an investigation to the fire's origin begins.
FAISON -- Firefighters today are expected to continue pulling the still-smoldering bins of sweet potatoes from the Southern Produce warehouse, which was heavily damaged in a fire that began Sunday night.
The building and equipment were valued between $10 million to $15 million. The extent of the damage was not readily known this morning. The fire destroyed 40 to 50 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 bushels of potatoes stored in the 126,000-square-foot warehouse, The potatoes are selling for $15 to $16 per bushel, adding another $4.5 million to $6 million potential loss.
Meanwhile, Stewart Precythe, whose family has operated Southern Produce since 1942, said he would rebuild.
Bay Valley Foods reopened today after being closed Monday because the strain on the town's water system had left it unable to meet the company's water needs.
More than 75 firefighters from 30 departments remained on the scene last night as the fire stretched into its second day.
By this morning, the fire, while not completely extinguished, was under control and contained, said Duplin County Emergency Services Director Brian Pearce. It was safe enough for firefighters to enter the building, he said.
Pearce said he was hopeful that only a few people would need to remain at the building tonight as a fire watch.
The building's roof and trusses, particularly in the center, were severely damaged by the heat, he said. Some walls had to be torn down to gain access to some areas of the structure.
The warehouse, he said, probably will be totaled. There are two adjoining buildings that have yet to be entered, but Pearce said they might not have even suffered smoke damage.
The investigation into the fire will include the SBI that was in town Monday afternoon. The SBI involvement is standard procedure because of the building's size, Pearce said. It is too early to tell what started the fire.
It isn't the first time that Precythe has been forced to rebuild -- it has been 21 years to the month since another fire damaged the same warehouse.
The cause of that first fire was never documented and Precythe said he welcomes the SBI's involvement. Precythe met with SBI agents Monday afternoon.
The building has four production lines. Cardboard boxes that can hold 40 pounds of sweet potatoes are stored in the building and bins made of wood and plastic hold the potatoes.
Precythe said he had learned from the 1988 fire and no longer put all his "eggs in one basket", but had his sweet potatoes spread over several locations including Benson, Louisiana and Mississippi.
"I'll have potatoes as long as anybody else in North Carolina," he said. "The important thing is that no one was hurt in either fire."
Precythe said he has never forgotten the 1988 fire, often thinking of it whenever he smelled smoke.
"I had gotten home (Sunday) and was out walking, I live about one-half mile as the crow flies," he said. "I smelled something. I didn't see any smoke or fire but a man came running out of his house saying, 'Stuart Southern Produce is on fire.'"
Precythe said he had hoped it would have been the smaller office building.
A neighbor noticed the smoke and fire and called 911 around 9:40 Sunday night. Fire fighters from 30 departments from Duplin, Wayne and Sampson counties responded to the alarm.
Some streets near the warehouse on N.C. 50/403 were closed. Highway Patrol and Duplin County Sheriff's Office provided traffic and crowd control. Duplin County EMS responded as well, but there have been no injuries.
"It was like I was out there looking, and I just can't believe it," he said. "Once was bad enough twice is almost incomprehensible."
However, like the first time, Precythe said he decided that he could either "go home and mope or wake up the next morning" and start over.
"I did build it back, and we will build it back again," he said. "If I didn't have a 25-year-old son and I was 60 years old, I would consider quitting and just be a broker. It was there for me, and it will be there for him."
Precythe said it was also important for him to rebuild because his "loyal" employees and customers.
The main storage has a sprinkler system and Precythe said he feels it will help bring the fire under control.
The warehouse complex uses a unique cooling system. During the winter, specialized equipment make what is essentially an "iceberg." As the ice melts in the summer it cools the produce.
Bay Valley Foods uses approximately one-half of the 500,000 gallons of water produced daily by the town. By early Monday afternoon, firefighters had drained roughly 750,000 gallons of water before the town had to shut the system down. By that time, the town's 75,000-gallon tank was empty and the 300,000-gallon tank had had only two feet of water remaining, said Jimmy Tyndall, the town's public works director. The water is normally 29 feet deep.
Fire fighters continued to use the quick dump system sending tankers to siphon water from Goshen Swamp then dumping it in a large tanks from which it could be pumped.
The town shut down the supply to keep the pressure at 20 pounds and to not invoke an order to boil water.
There was still water for residents, but they have been asked to conserve as efforts continue to replenish the tanks.
A fire department pumper truck was hooked into the Duplin County water system pumping 750 gallons per minute to help resupply the water supply. Added to that were the 900 gallons per minute being pumped by the town's system.
Normally 600 to 700 gallons per minute are pumped, Tyndall said.
"We have not reached one-third of capacity yet," he said.
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