Slow going in Petersburg fire investigation

By Matt Butner - bio | email

PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT)- The investigation continues into what caused a massive fire at a Petersburg warehouse.

The Saturday morning blaze gutted the former Brown and Williamson Tobacco building. At one point, a large section of wall collapsed, narrowly missing several firefighters, including the chief.

It happened in a flash- a huge chunk of the building's western wall crashed down into the street. Fire chief T.C. Hairston stood about 25 yards away- he scrambled to safety.

"Back-pedaling- moonwalking, almost," said Hairston.

Just minutes earlier, Hairston had predicted the collapse.

"I had just told my deputy fire marshal that the penthouse was ready to come down in about 10 minutes- it actually came down in about 6-8 minutes," Hairston said.

Two days after the inferno, the investigation is still in its early stages. Part of the problem is that the fire is still smoldering.

"Our suppression personnel are continuing to fight spot fires and flare-ups even into this morning," said Petersburg Fire Marshal Rufus Atkins.

Parts of the building are so heavily damaged, fire marshals can't even reach them. They have been interviewing construction workers, who would have been the last people in the building on Friday before the fire started.

"Type of work, anything they saw that might have been out of the ordinary or unusual- that type of situation," said Atkins.

According to eyewitnesses and firefighters, the fire appears to have started on the third floor or the roof. Once the building is stable, fire marshals will be able to determine an exact point of origin.

"We're going to look at everything from the condition of the I-beams and the structural framing- what's left- and we're going to follow patterns and burn char," said Atkins.

Atkins says the investigation could last several more days.

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