Ace Bayou fire 'fishy'

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The spectacular fire that consumed Ace Bayou's Cat Craft factory here almost 10 weeks ago may have been deliberately set, according to one source close to the case.

Without using the word "arson," Lewisburg's fire chief has acknowledged that a criminal investigation is under way.

"There are some fishy things" about that fire, Chief Larry Williams said late last week. "According to the investigators who were working for the insurance companies, there were multiple set fires" in the plant.

There were at least half a dozen places where fires were set in the plant, according to Williams.

Four fire departments and more than 50 emergency personnel battled the blaze that engulfed much of the old creameries on West Church Street that were converted into a pet products plant. The fire was discovered by Lewisburg police at about 10:55 p.m. on Nov. 29.

"There were no accelerants," Williams said of liquid fuels often used by arsonists. "But there were none needed. The products that were stored in this facility were a heavy enough fuel load ... to spread the fire quickly."

Products assembled by Ace Bayou include scratch poles for cats and cat condos, which are carpet-covered cylinders that provide a perch and hiding place for felines. Beanbag chairs were also made in the factory that had many wooden pallets for moving the products.

"All these are easily lighted," Williams said. "All could be lit with a cigarette lighter. Basically it's carpeting that was, pretty much, petroleum-based carpet fibers and backing. And there was a lot of cardboard, which is highly flammable.

"There were wooden pallets involved. They're made of hardwood. It takes more heat to get hardwood burning, but when it gets to burning, it produces a lot of heat."

The Tennessee Fire Marshall's Office has been poised ready to take over the investigation, Williams said. However, that state office's special agent assigned to this area has been occupied by two recent fire deaths. One was in Fayetteville on Jan. 27. The other was in Columbia, also in the last full week of January.

The investigation that led to Williams' conclusion about the fire was conducted by two fire insurance company representatives, the fire chief said.

Williams anticipates that Special Agent Russell Robertson of the state Bomb and Arson Squad will resume the investigation into the Cat Bayou fire this month.

Lewisburg Fire Capt. William Lynch was among the first firefighters to arrive on the scene that Thursday night. Even with 37 years' experience, Lynch said he saw no evidence of arson when he arrived.

"You couldn't say it was arson until you got into it," Lynch said.

Williams said that because the metal roof caved in, there were portions of the fire that were covered and that area had to be accessed by the investigators. That resulted in additional work to extinguish what was burning under the metal roof.

Insurance company investigators were on the scene during the several days after the fire and practically all of the next week, Williams said.

"Their information went to the state Fire Marshall's office, so we didn't really get much of their investigation," the fire chief said. "The fire had already broken through the roof" when Lynch and his men arrived, Williams said. "That's a flag to a fireman, so instead of attacking the fire, he went to defensive tactics."

Said Lynch, "I knew the building was already destroyed" when the first truck arrived.

There were several different structures that comprised the assembly area and the storage portion of the so-called cat furniture plant.

"We had to set up to defend what we could defend," Lynch said.

According to Williams, the Borden Cheese Co. opened production at that location in the late 1920s and ceased operations there in 1967. Tuscargora was the next business to occupy the buildings. Tuscargora Yarns Inc. is based in Mt. Pleasant, N.C. After Tuscargora's 1968-2002 tenure here, the buildings were vacant until 2004, when Ace Bayou rented the space and then bought it in 2005, according to Williams.