A firefighter battles the blaze at First Fiber Inc. on Monday in the Phipps Bend Industrial Park. An estimated 130 to 140 firefighters responded to the fire. Photo by David Grace.
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PHIPPS BEND - It will be a day or two before investigators are able to sift through the rubble to find out what started a fire that destroyed the First Fiber Inc. plant Monday at the Phipps Bend Industrial Park.
The blaze was reported shortly after 10 a.m. Monday, and firefighters were still putting out hot spots well into the evening.
Plant supervisor Jim Mayes said 12 employees including himself were working when the fire started. They were on their morning break when Mayes noticed flames and black smoke billowing from a storage area at the rear of the plant.
By the time primary responders from the Carters Valley Volunteer Fire Department arrived on the scene, flames had already broken through the roof. Carters Valley VFD listed its response time at approximately 10 minutes.
By 11 a.m., smoke was visible as far east as Kingsport and as far west as Rogersville - about 15 miles in each direction.
No employees were injured, and the only firefighter injury reported involved blisters on one volunteer's feet.
Mayes said he doesn't know how the fire started, but it began in an area where bales of paper are stored along with a large quantity of polypropylene, a type of plastic. First Fiber manufactures those materials into a absorbent material for petroleum spill cleanups.
"All of my employees were on break, and I came out of the office and looked back to the back, and all I saw was pure orange flames," Mayes said. "I sounded the alarm and told the office to call the fire department, and then did a head count when we got everybody out."
The plant employs 16 people. Mayes said he can't say for sure what started the fire.
"We're going to leave it up to the investigator to figure that out," Mayes said. "Unless it was a defective light or electrical problem, I can't imagine what would have caused it. We had no machinery in the back.
"The only thing back there that could have caused a fire is lights."
Mayes estimated that there was 15,000 to 20,000 pounds of paper in the area where the fire started, as well as 250,000 pounds of polypropylene.
Firefighters attacked the blaze from all four sides, and from above, but water made little impact. Incident commander Frank Vaughn, who is the Carters Valley VFD assistant fire chief, said the main goal was to protect the factories on each side of First Fiber from fire.
"When I arrived at the scene, black smoke was pouring from all the doors at the back of the building and had pushed through the roof," Vaughn said. "It was pretty much a done deal by the time we got here. We're dumping water on it, but we're not making much of a dent. It just had to burn itself out.
"Right now we have no clue how it started, and it will probably be a day or two before an investigator can come check it out."
Shifting winds nagged firefighters, feeding the flames and a few times pushing thick walls of black smoke down on the firefighters who were manning the hoses.
Thick black smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air above First Fiber before drifting in the direction of Church Hill. Hawkins County HazMat was called to Volunteer High School after students began complaining of odor and headaches from the smoke.
There was also concern for patients at a nearby nursing home. HazMat officials tested the air at both places and determined that it was not toxic or dangerous.
Every fire department in Hawkins County with the exception of Clinch responded to the scene, as did Kingsport, Warriors Path, Bloomingdale and Sullivan West. Vaughn estimated that 130 to 140 firefighters responded.
Although several hoses were attached to fire hydrants near First Fiber, tankers from various departments also ran a continuous relay to and from other hydrants throughout the industrial park, filling up with water to take to the scene.
Also on the scene were the Hawkins County Rescue Squad, both ambulance services in the county, and Wings Air Rescue, which had a helicopter at Phipps Bend on standby.
The American Red Cross was also at the scene and planned to feed the firefighters who stayed into the evening battling hot spots.
Hawkins County Industrial Developer Lynn Lawson said Monday he'd already been in contact with First Fiber management officials, who want to find the company a temporary location so it can resume production as soon as possible. Lawson said company officials indicated they have numerous orders they hope to fill, so finding space and replacing machinery will be a top priority.
Mayes, who has worked at First Fiber for six years, said the company is prosperous, and he has every reason to believe it will rebuild.
"I've got faith in them," Mayes said. "I'm not going to give up on them. I've got six years invested in this company, and hopefully they'll get on it pretty fast because I've got three kids to feed."
First Fiber opened at Phipps Bend in 1996. In 2000 a Surgoinsville firefighter was severely injured when dust exploded in a hopper during a minor fire at the plant.