Investigators work to determine cause of recycling plant fire; property owner plans to convert area into apartments

Updated: Feb. 19, 2020 at 5:56 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Fire crews battled a massive two-alarm fire at a recycling plant in Richmond on Tuesday evening.

The building used to be River City Recycling but the business is now called Material Management and Recycling. It’s located directly behind Brooks Diner, not far from Virginia Union University.

A.J. Nwoko NBC12 is on the scene of a large fire at recycling plant in Richmond on School Street near Brook Road.

Posted by NBC12 on Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Heavy, black smoke from burning tires could be seen at various points around the city.

“You can see the fire from like seven or eight miles from here,” said Philip Beisel.

Beisel was one of the many bystanders who crowded on a hill overlooking the fire off Brook Road.

“It’s almost like an action movie,” said Beisel. “There was a loud explosion that got everybody running for it.”

Fire crews are battling a large fire at a recycling plant in Richmond.
Fire crews are battling a large fire at a recycling plant in Richmond.(Jessica Seier)

Crews were called to the blaze along School Street just before 6 p.m. on Tuesday.

Officials said a “defensive operation” was set up as firefighters battled the blaze.

“They were having a hard time even finding water to get down there for the longest time because the hydrants were actually pretty far,” said Beisel. “I believe it’s a tire fire so that’s a lot of energy and a lot of things to burn back there.”

Richmond fire crews were able to get the fire under control just before 9 p.m.

Earlier, officials said there were still several fires inside the building but crews were unable to get inside for a period of time.

Fire officials said firefighters conducted a primary search and did not have any injuries or deaths to report at the time.

“It was chaos. That’s the best I could say. I’ve never seen that many ambulances and firetrucks at one time and in one place,” Lincoln Campbell said.

Lincoln Campbell rushed to the scene to make sure his business was spared. Thankfully, it was.

“The fire was everywhere and was over the top of the building. The smoke was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife,” Lincoln Campbell said.

“We knew something big was burning but we just didn’t know what,” Ben Campbell said.

Ben Campbell lives 10 blocks away and could see the smoke from his house.

“My wife and I were together and we let the windows down. We had to let it back up because the smoke was so thick it would take your breath away,” Ben Campbell said.

There are 14 different companies that responded to the fire, with four people each. Henrico and Chesterfield firefighters assisted Richmond at the scene and also backfilled some of the city’s fire stations.

The owner of the business, Mathew Appelget, says the business is a scrap metal recycling facility and closed its doors on Dec. 31 when the lease ended. Appelget says none of his employees were at the business at the time of the fire but confirms the property was unsecured and the power was shut off.

Officials confirm there were many materials still on the property including tires, drums of oil, gas and car parts which contributed to the huge plume of black smoke.

NBC12 has learned this is the second fire at a recycling plant that Appelget has owned. In 2014, an electrical issue sparked a three-alarm fire at River City Recycling in South Richmond.

The Lawson Company bought the property in Dec. 2019, and a spokesperson confirms plans to turn the property into an apartment community.

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