04/30/09 — Produce warehouse fire ruled arson

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Produce warehouse fire ruled arson

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 30, 2009 1:46 PM

FAISON -- A Duplin County warehouse fire that firefighters battled for three days was intentionally set, authorities are saying.

"At this time the exact cause has not been determined, but it was intentionally set," Duplin County Emergency Services Director Brian Pearce said this morning. "There is a potential for a cash reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whomever set the fire."

A joint criminal investigation is under way by the Duplin County Sheriff's Office, the SBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Pearce said it was standard procedure for the SBI and ATF to be involved because of the size of the warehouse -- some 126,000 square feet.

The SBI used specially trained dogs earlier this week during the investigation of the blaze at the Southern Produce Distributors warehouse on N.C. 403/50 just west of the town. Aerial photos were taken to assist in the probe, particularly to gain a better perspective of how the fire had spread.

"They feel confident in determining that it was a set fire," Pearce said.

More specific information concerning how the determination was reached or what may have been used to start the fire was not released because of the ongoing investigation, Pearce said.

The fire severely damaged the structural integrity of the building. It is expected to be a total loss.

Owner Stewart Precythe said earlier in the week that the building and equipment were valued at between $10 million and $15 million. The fire destroyed 40 to 50 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 bushels of potatoes stored in the warehouse, The potatoes are selling for $15 to $16 per bushel, adding another $4.5 million to $6 million potential loss.

A neighbor noticed the smoke and fire and called 911 around 9:40 Sunday night. Since that time some 250 fire fighters representing 50 departments from nine counties helped battle blaze.

Smoldering bins of sweet potatoes had to be pulled from the building before firefighters could safely enter.

The fire has been completely extinguished by yesterday and fire and law enforcement have been able to enter the structure, Pearce said. Even then cautioned had to be exercised because of structural damage.

All of the firefighters had been released by Wednesday. Pearce said that officials did drive by the scene several times last night to ensure that the fire did not rekindle.

No one was inside the building at the time of the fire and no injuries have been reported.

Meanwhile, Precythe, whose family has operated Southern Produce since 1942, said he would rebuild. It is the second time the building has burned, the first fire happened 21 years ago to the month.

The cause of that first fire was never documented and Precythe said he welcomes the SBI's involvement.

Precythe said the building has four production lines and that 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.

The fire placed such a stain on the town's ability to pump water that Bay Valley Foods, the town biggest water user, had to close on Monday. It reopened Tuesday.

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to call a tip line at 1-800-334-3000.