Photo by Tom Hooker
A Rutland City ladder truck delivers a stream of water to the fire that would burn Rutland Plywood to the ground early Thursday in Rutland Town.
RUTLAND TOWN — The cause of a massive fire that razed Rutland Plywood remains undetermined, but a Vermont State Police fire investigator made it clear Thursday he didn’t think the fire was intentionally set.
“I believe, yes, we can rule that out,” Detective Sgt. Dave Sutton said when asked if arson had been eliminated from the list of causes. “There’s nothing that we found to suggest arson.”
Sutton and a team of nine other state police and state Fire Division investigators spent the day combing over the charred remains of two separate fire scenes at the sprawling plant on Ripley Road in Rutland Town.
Flames tore through the tinder- and chemical-filled plant shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday, leaving behind only the skeletal remains of steel girders twisted by the extreme heat.
Rutland Town Fire Chief Frank Cioffi and Fire Capt. Mike Carlson said the heat from the conflagration was so intense that fire crews had to remove a propane tank across the street to prevent an explosion, fire trucks were pulled back because the paint on their sides was scalding hot and sawdust stored in a metal tower ignited and burned throughout the day.
None of the 24 employees working the third shift was hurt in the blaze. However, two Rutland town firefighters were treated for a concussion and an ankle sprain, Cioffi said.
The fire that consumed the plant that employed 170 people was preceded eight hours earlier by a smaller fire that employees and firefighters from several communities were able to contain to a facility away from the main building on the southeast end of the property.
The earlier blaze started at 5:20 p.m. when sparks and flames began shooting from giant grinder, known in the plant as “the hog.” The flames ignited a giant pile of sawdust and bark shavings that filled a pit near the building that housed the grinder.
But by 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, firefighters left the scene after dousing hot spots and using an excavator to remove the smoldering pile of sawdust.
As an extra precaution, employees at the plant periodically checked the area around the grinder Wednesday night to make sure that no flames had reignited.
But despite the precautions, more than four hours later another fire quickly grew out of control less than 100 feet away in a brick building attached to the main work-plant.
Jeff Rayborn said he was working on a press inside the main building when fire alarms started going off at about 1 a.m.
“The fire alarm went off and someone came in shouting for everyone to get out,” Rayborn said during a phone interview. “We sat outside for a couple of minutes then looked in the windows and all we could see were big flames.”
The heat of the blaze quickly drove Rayborn and the rest of the employees to the other side of Ripley Road where they could only watch as firefighters fought a losing battle.
Carlson said it was obvious the structure was lost when Rutland Town and city crews initially arrived on the scene.
“When we got here 90 percent of the main building was engulfed,” he said.
Adding to the difficulties faced by fire crews was an initial shortage of water as only two hydrants are located near the plant. Eventually, lines were extended to two other hydrants and water was drawn from nearby Otter Creek, but efforts to save any part of the main structure were in vain.
During the 17 hours that the Rutland Town crews were on scene, they were assisted by firefighters from Rutland City, West Rutland, Proctor, Pittsford, Clarendon, Ira, Tinmouth and Middletown Springs.
Smoldering debris and twisted frames were all that was left of the sprawling plant by 9 a.m. Thursday, but firefighters worked until 6 p.m. hosing down the smoking remains.
As Sutton and his investigators spent the day examining the two fire scenes, a number of plant employees watched from the sidelines and wondered if foul play was involved.
“I hope if it’s arson they catch the (expletive). A lot of people work here and they’re not making a lot of money doing it, but they need the jobs they have,” said 20-year employee Walter Wilmoth.
“I watched my job go up in smoke,” employee Jerry Sanborn said.
Many employees and some firefighters at the scene said it seemed suspicious that two fires could start in two locations at the plant.
Cioffi and Carlson said firefighters inspected the brick building where the second fire started before leaving the plant Wednesday evening.
The building, which housed a wood chipper, piles of wood chips, glue and laminates, filled with smoke during the fire Wednesday afternoon, but no fires or smoldering material was found inside, Cioffi said.
“There wasn’t a lot going on in that area when we were here yesterday,” Carlson said. “That the fire started there even raised some red flags (for the management). The plant manager said all the equipment was shut down in that part of the building. That building isn’t anywhere near where the fire started last night, either.”
But Sutton said his investigators found no evidence at all that the fire was intentionally set. The detective sergeant said investigators also found no evidence linking the two fires.
“There’s nothing there to say that fire number one caused fire number two,” he said. “But there’s also nothing to suggest it was caused naturally or (with an) incendiary, which leads us back to maybe an accidental fire. But since we don’t know and have no evidence, we’re left with an undetermined fire.”
The investigator said, “It’s a coincidence, yes, but not odd because there was a very big fire here not long before the second one started.”
Sutton said fire investigators did discover that the kind of fire started by the grinder Wednesday afternoon wasn’t the first of its kind.
He said the grinder, which hammers the densest of logs into flinders, has generated sparks and small fires in the past that were never reported because they were doused by employees without help from the fire department.
“When we interviewed people we found that this kind of incident was not an uncommon occurrence,” Sutton said.
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